In a Self-Service Age, Who Remembers The Service Economy?

At first glance these days, the express checkout line at Shaw's Supermarket in Derry, N.H., shows no sign of being staffed with a cashier or a bagger, even though shoppers are at the counter. But look again. Someone is running groceries past a laser scanner and putting them in plastic bags. It just happens to be the customers themselves.

Called the U-Scan Express, this self-service system features a computerized voice explaining how to proceed. After shoppers ring up their purchases, they feed cash or a debit card into a machine, never exchanging a word with a store employee.

In a similar test at a Safeway in Surrey, England, this month, customers can avoid the checkout line entirely. Using a hand-held device about the size of a portable phone, they scan each item before putting it into the cart. To pay, they insert a credit or debit card into a machine near the exit.

Marketeers say these systems help customers avoid waiting in line. They also enable stores to hire fewer employees. If tests prove successful, these systems will be coming soon to grocery, convenience, video, and hardware stores everywhere.

Ever since McDonald's opened in the 1950s and began training customers to clear off their own tables, consumers have been getting lessons in self-service. Even so, who could have imagined a world where people would pump their own gas and bag their own groceries?

America in the late 20th-century is repeatedly called a "service economy." That may be a misnomer. "Self-service economy" is closer to the truth. Increasingly, what the British call DIY - do-it-yourself - is becoming the norm.

In the workplace, do-it-yourself employment has become a necessity for those in the vast contingent work force. What is a contract worker but a self-service employee, cobbling together a variety of assignments for a host of employers and hoping it all adds up to a steady paycheck?

Even pensions have increasingly gone self-service, or do-it-yourself, as employers place more responsibility on full-time workers to establish their own 401(k) accounts and figure out their own retirement income.

Whatever the cost-savings to businesses, self-service and DIY have other limits. As if to acknowledge that, two signs on a cash register in a suburban Boston department store show that the desire to serve still exists in some quarters, even if actual service has gone minimalist.

"Think like a customer," reads one sign. The other, in red ink, says, "Be sure to approach every customer!"

But on a busy Saturday afternoon, there is no way the lone sales clerk at this register can approach even one customer. With no other clerks around, she can do little more than ring up items as fast as she can while the line of customers grows.

As for the sign, "Think like a customer," it is advice retail executives could post in their own plush offices and take to heart the next time they're tempted to downsize a few more employees and close a few more registers. They should understand that time-short customers have been known to think darkly:

Where have all the sales clerks gone? And why am I standing in this line to serve myself when I could be home, mail-ordering similar items on an 800-number - or the Internet - from the comfort of my favorite chair? Retailers take note: Self-service offers many competing options.

As the DIY movement grows, intriguing questions abound:

What kind of self-service will be next?

How many more jobs - clerks, cashiers, baggers, waiters, gas station attendants - will be lost in the process?

And will a cashless, self-service society become a faceless society as customers increasingly interact with machines rather than people?

Whatever the answers, if the U-Scan Express and similar self-service inventions take hold, the bumper-sticker motto for the future could well be: U-Can-Do-It-Urself. That doesn't necessarily represent progress.

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