Thursday, February 24, 2011

Self-Service Assisted Suicide (The Costco Syndrome)

Was just at Costco this morning doing my part to help kill off the last few American Main Street businesses when I did something I've never done before: peeled away from the long lines at the checkout counters to use one of the self-checkout counters. Normally, I shy away from them. They look complicated. They look like it would be easy to make a mistake while trying to get them to work, creating a big do-over hassle that just wouldn't be worth it. Also, since shoppers get no discount for using them, I figure that I'm needlessly subsidizing the store at my own expense by foregoing the assistance of a live wage-earner.

But today I had only a few items and a bit of time on my hands, so I thought 'What the hell?' The moment I arrived at my station, in front of the ominous scanner-machine with its HAL Computer-like internal blue electric eye, a guy in a Costco uniform rushed up to help me. This puzzled me some. What kind of savings was the store achieving by using both an expensive machine and an expensive, benefits-wanting human being? Then I realized that, of course, this doubled-up situation was only temporary. At some point in the future (a point already graphed out by Costco),  most -- or enough -- customers will have so thoroughly mastered self-checkout that calls for human backup will be rare. At which point the helper guy (and the other one hovering in back of him for the other self-service aisle) would be reassigned or let go. Probably let go. As would a number of the live cashiers. Duh.

That wasn't the shocking part, though -- Costco's pursuit of mechanized efficiency. The shocking part was how weirdly cheerful, how manically chipper, the doomed helper guy was about rendering himself obsolete. He grinned and bounced and offered me aid as though it was he, not management, who was going to save money when the robots shoved him aside. He actually acted like he had a stake in his own redundancy and wanted to hasten it.

It's the labor equivalent of the Stockholm Syndrome and it's everywhere. In fact, by blogging for free about the subject rather than writing this for a paying magazine, I'm proving that I suffer from it, too.

(Please send in your own examples of this phenomenon)


  1. Call me cynical, but voting in state and/or federal elections feels that way, too. I equate it to going back to the crazy girlfriend every 2-4-6 years, because she's changed this time, no, really, and all of that crazy shit I used to do? I'm over it, and this time We Will Work. Then you wake up the next morning with the taste of old wine and hope in your mouth, and she's already in the bathroom crying and texting her mom about how much of a dick you are because you forgot to blow out one of the candles last night and it WAS HER FAVORITE FUCKING ONE THAT SHE GOT FROM HER FATHER THE LAST TIME HIS WORTHLESS SKIPJACK ASS WAS IN TOWN ALTHOUGH HE WAS WHORING AROUND WITH SOME BIG-HAIR TRAMP AT THE PINE GROVE INN AND HOW COULD YOU BURN THAT FUCKING CANDLE DOWN TO A NUB? And you realize that it's gonna be a long 2-4-6 years.

  2. The human need won't go away completely. Sometimes the machines demand some official approval or the people screw up. The attendant services four checkouts if my local Albertson's is any indication. With better machines they may not need this sort of intervention.

  3. No, it won't go away completely. But you don't have to lose all your limbs completely, either, to end up in pretty awful shape. And Main Street stores haven't gone away completely -- there's that. in fact, I saw one in Idaho the other day on an otherwise untenanted, abandoned block whose window sign read: "Lawswuit Center." underneath were listed all the bad pharma drugs with big class action suits attached. Cheerful.

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  5. I thought Up in the Air was a great book, and I enjoyed the movie too, thought it was a good adaptation, curious to know what you thought of the movie. It would interesting to hear your thoughts on the whole process of your books becoming movies.

  6. After my New Yorker piece on the 10th anniversary of the Vietnam Vets Memorial, I set-up a 501(c)3, the Vietnamese Memorial Association, dedicated to building memorials in Vietnam to the victims of wars there. I got a high-profile group of folks on the two boards, including James Fallows, Stanley Karnow, Marcus Raskin, Hodding Carter III, Lew Puller Jr, ex-hostage Terry Anderson and a guy who'd helped with the Vietnam Vets Memorial, John Wheeler, who asked a lot of questions, which I dutifully answered. When my board failed to pay me the salary they agreed to, I had to resign, and knew how Steve Jobs felt when he was forced out of Apple. Surprise surprise -- John Wheeler took over. The Vietnam Vets founder, Jan Scruggs, told me Wheeler tried to do the same thing with him on the VVM. EPILOGUE: Wheeler's body was found in garbage truck in late December 2010. I did not smile. But I wasn't sad.

  7. Just yesterday, I ordered a bunch of books on Amazon, and it occurred to me they've probably put a ton of other retailers out of business, since their prices seem to be the lowest around (and now they sell electronics, clothes, furniture, and everything else you could ever need). But of course, I keep shopping there, because why would I want to pay more for the same item?

    I've noticed the "worker Stockholm Syndrome" in many places as well. Maybe those cashier helpers don't even think about the fact that their jobs are temporary? These days, a short-term job might be the best anyone can do, horrible as that is to say. I know a lot of people who have temp/contract office jobs (some of whom have worked at those places for years), with no benefits, no job security, and they have to go in every day and act cheerful and happy to be there. I guess it's not quite the same (since they're not helping to put themselves out of a job), but I've never understood how some people could be that enthusiastic about a job where they're being treated like a visitor but have the responsibilities of an employee. Maybe some people are just naturally better actors than others. I've had to interview for some awful jobs, and I always have trouble feigning enthusiasm as the interviewer describes the job. I was once offered a (temp, naturally) job that consisted solely of going to meetings all day long. It involved "bank integration," i.e. helping one bank take over another. Once the project was complete, I'm sure my job would have become redundant. I turned it down because it sounded unbearable, and I justified that to myself by saying that it wouldn't have led to any sort of normal career path, since bank integration is a very specific niche (though sure to be around for the next several years, at least).

    I'm still unemployed.

  8. Reading is one activity that reliably gives me pleasure (not even sex and eating are as reliable.) So I value bookstores. Yet I shop at Amazon mostly. A lot. In America big box bookstores and "onlines" maimed the indies. Now Borders is going down which leaves The One: B&N. I have helped this brittle ecosystem evolve. What happens if B&N goes down?

  9. My local supermarket chain (Stop & Shop) has had self checkouts for at least three or four years. Unless you've got a very small number of items the self checkouts never work right and employee assistance is required.


  10. Oh, come on. No one aspires to be a super helpful smiling checkout robot at Costco. Dude isn't thinking his job will go away; he is thinking he will be promoted to real checker!

  11. Mr. Kirn, welcome to the blogs. I enjoyed Jason Reitman’s film, Up in the Air, which filmed in St. Louis. The St. Louis debut sold out before I could buy tickets. I created the Wikipedia article for that film and updated the article on your book. I hope to read your book (especially if it is the original edition with the cover showing people flying about, crashing and burning), so I can do justice to the article on your book.

    I categorically refuse to do the self check-out. In addition to the Costco installations, local grocery stores such as Shop ‘N Save, Schnucks and Dierbergs have installed these. I enjoy talking with the cashiers while checking out. I make a point of showing up at stores when they are typically less busy so I can do this without causing problems to other customers. I resisted direct deposit, since I also like to talk with the cashiers at the credit union when depositing my check.

    Social media such as blogs, Facebook and twitter are a poor substitute for direct face-to-face human interaction. I believe this is a major theme in your books, especially Up in the Air.

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