The new bottom line - keep people moving

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Call it The Case of the Disappearing Lockers.

For decades, passengers at O'Hare Airport have enjoyed the convenience of lockers lining the walls in several terminals. A few quarters would buy enough space to store small possessions during a long layover or a brief foray outside the airport.

Now that convenience has ended. Last Friday, a traveler hoping to spend a few hours in downtown Chicago looked in vain for a place to leave a carry-on bag. All the lockers were locked. A baggage-claim agent sympathized with a request to store the bag, but said he would lose his job if he agreed to do it. Even the airline's private membership club, too pricey for this traveler, offers only an unlocked closet.

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O'Hare's customer service department confirms that within the past few months, all the lockers have been taken out of service. "I think it's for security reasons," an employee explains.

But since hand-carried items have already passed through security before reaching the lockers, where is the danger? What a sad new reality: no public place in a huge airport to stow a few small items, even briefly.

Yet travelers aren't the only ones with storage problems. Various middle schools and high schools around the country, concerned about weapons and drugs, have also sealed their lockers, forcing students to carry all their books and belongings all day.

These policies in schools and airports give new meaning to the term U-Haul, turning young and old alike into Sherpas and pack mules, toting their stuff wherever they go.

But the disappearing locker ranks as only one indignity. In what is billed as a service-oriented economy, another service is fading fast. Call this one The Case of the Vanishing Chairs.

Once upon a more considerate time, stores often provided seating for customers. Today the retailing creed appears to be: If you're sitting, you're not shopping. So stand up, move around, and spend, spend, spend.

The mantra of a consumer society has become "Shop till you drop." But when customers are indeed ready to drop, many find that, ironically, there's no place to do so - nowhere to rest and prepare for the next round of spending. The heavily laden not only find no lockers to store their shopping bags, but also no place to sit down with them. Their only seating options may be backless benches in the mall or crowded tables in a noisy food court.

Midwesterners with good memories fondly recall that one of the best waiting areas existed on the third floor of Marshall Field's in Chicago. Comfortable wooden chairs provided a place for weary shoppers to relax, and for families and friends to meet and regroup. There were rest-rooms nearby, as well as phones, a clock, and yes, even lockers for coats and packages.

Today, as retailing grows ever more competitive, bottom-line success gets measured in sales per square foot. Waiting areas, with not a cash register in sight, have become a luxury hard to justify to stern accountants.

Yet such space just might be a service that pays intangible dividends. In a perpetual-motion culture, a place to sit down and slow down, unencumbered, could be an idea whose time has returned.

Bring back lockers. Bring back chairs and waiting areas. Give a break to the overburdened who have no place to rest.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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