Friday, June 20, 2003

Retail trendspotting blog.

For all I know, this has been going on for months, or for years, without me noticing. On the other hand, I suspect what I've noticed lately is just the visible side of a technical and managerial evolution that's now coming to fruition -- that is, a lot of engineers poring over the most arcane of details of arcane information systems, eking out improvements over time; and a lot of middle managers memo'ing and meeting and prioritizing and strategizing and diagramming and finalizing and putting their careers into --

Automatic check-out stations. To this, I say No. No. No. It awakens the Luddite lurking somewhere this side of the reptilian part of my brain. To enter my Clockwork Orange mode, my droogs, I sees it, and I wants t' smash it.

The Sunday before Memorial Day, I dropped by a Wal-Mart in Brookfield, Wis., for a few sundries, and two lines were open that evening. One was a standard checkout line. The other had employees were milling around it, but not a checkout clerk. The employees were encouraging us to try something new -- something easy -- a real timesaver, by golly -- an unmanned checkout line. Scan your stuff, insert money or a card, and you're off!

I wasn't in the mood to learn any new tricks, so I stayed in the line with an actual human being at the end. This gave me time to think it through. Why would Wal-Mart do this? To lower overhead, of course. Fewer workers, less overhead. That's not what really bothered me, though. Wal-Mart wants me to do their work for them, for free. I noted that no discount was involved for using the auto station.

In fact, and I can see this coming as clearly as buffalo stampede: if people take a cotton to this procedure, retailers will either (1) start charging for the automatic service, in the same Milton Drysdale sort of way that banks charge for the ATMs that have replaced more expensive human tellers; or (2), if that model doesn't work, it will cost extra to use a human clerk, the way banks would do if customer outrage hadn't generally 86'd that idea (generally, but not completely).

I went to Home Depot last weekend, and what do you think I saw -- a brand-new automatic checkout system. No! If only this were just the latest step in The Rise of the Machines, that would at least have some dramatic value. This is more pedestrian. The latest in the swarm of wallet termites, is more like it.