One of the ways that I deal with stress in my life is by writing. I often write things that nobody ever sees, but it helps me when I get my thoughts on out on paper so having an audience for what I have written is not important. Last night I had an experience that really made me give thought to things I have been observing in our society that have been bothering me. It was still on my mind this morning, and I sat down and put it into words. I have attached the text below for you to read if you wish. And, aside from the introduction, today's episode is my reading of this article:
I am a consumer. I buy things that I need, and I buy things that I want. Sometimes the two overlap and sometimes they do not.
My wife and I recently purchased a new car. Our stage of life enabled us, for the first time, to purchase exactly what we wanted within the boundaries of our self-imposed, upper limits. It took 50 years of life and 25 years of marriage for me to reach this point. Our parameters for this purchase had not changed, but a lifetime of living below our means and building wealth changed the numbers that fit within those parameters.
To us, this vehicle is “fancy”, as described by my wife. For years she and I have driven what we believed we needed but in very stripped down, utilitarian versions, that reduced the cost of the vehicles. And, more importantly, reduced the burden on our conscience. The first ever, brand new pickup, I purchased was in 2003. I intended to drive it for two decades, and I made it 15 years.
The knowledge that I would drive it for so long motivated me to purchase a version that was “stripped down” of electronic amenities that would surely break and require repair before I was ready to part with the vehicle. Even in 2003, purchasing a new vehicle with manually controlled windows, a standard transmission and rubber flooring was not possible to do on the showroom floor. Therefore, in order to get a less expensive and less complicated version of this pickup, I had to special order it and wait for a period of months to receive it. 15 years later, I could hardly remember that waiting period.
It was only when wind started whipping into the door seals and the internal, working components of the heating system failed, that I decided to move on from this pickup. The sag of the body, and the inability to defrost my windshield created an imminent need for serious work on the pickup. Looking at all available options, I realized that because of the engine in this vehicle the market for it was very strong in 2018. Therefore, I chose to purchase another “stripped” down pickup, and to sell the other to a private party. Today, I am still driving the second, brand new pickup, and second, stripped down pickup, that I have ever purchased.
My wife’s new car is a Subaru Outback with a moon roof, heated seats and the enticing “Wilderness Package” that includes a turbo engine, 9 inch lift and off-road capable “X-Mode”. She would have been just as happy without the “Wilderness Package”. Even though, this is the first time we have ever been able to purchase “exactly what we want”, I was still thinking long term. My goal is to purchase her another vehicle in approximately 10 years, but keep this car for myself and my adventures on the rough and rocky dirt roads of Idaho’s public lands where we live. Therefore, I had it outfitted as capable as possible from the factory.
We will be driving to the mountains soon in search of the perfect Christmas tree. In idaho, with a little initiative, exercise and sweat you can obtain a beautiful tree for the cost of around $15, and you can make it a family outing at the same time. I have been cutting my own Christmas Tree from the National Forest since I was in college, and the thought of purchasing one for upwards of $100 from a lot unsettles me.
Of course, our plan is to use the new car to go retrieve this tree, and we will be hauling it back on the roof. Ironically, this led me to more consumption. The “Wilderness Package” does not include cross beams for the luggage rack. So, I had to order them for the car. After studying prices and reading reviews I went with a set that cost approximately $120 and placed the order.
The location we would travel to for the tree is about a 320 mile round trip from our home. There are places we could go to that are closer, but after years of hunting Christmas Trees closer to the sprawling metropolis of Boise, we have decided it is worth the drive to go to this area.
We could easily drive my stripped down pickup and never need to purchase the cross beams for the top of the car. However, at today’s gas prices, we would save approximately $53 by driving the car, which is almost 50% the cost of the cross beams. Assuming that there will be another use for the crossbeams in the future, possibly one that keeps us from driving the pickup, the purchase seems sensible and likely to ultimately save us money.
Ironically, my own consumption is what led me to give consumption and materialism in the U.S. deeper thought. On a Sunday evening of the weekend preceding our Christmas Tree hunt I unboxed the cross rails and went about the task of putting them together and fitting them on top of the car.
An issue that can arise with such hardware is a violent wind noise when the vehicle is at speed. So, after these were mounted, I decided to test drive the vehicle and determine whether not my purchase of an inexpensive set of cross rails was going to lead to this unfortunate side effect. It did not.
My family and I live on a small farm about three miles from town, and my test drive route took me in that direction. Ultimately, I wound up on the edge of the small city and noticed our one and only McDonald’s restaurant, open for business. An iced tea sounded good to me, and I had the $1.69 needed to get one. So, I proceeded to the drive through.
There were other cars in the drive through line, but there was just one car in front of me, waiting to move up to the ordering console. I had not gone through a drive through line in a significant amount of time, so I assumed that rewarding my diligent work with this small treat would be a quick affair.
In no time at all there were multiple vehicles in line behind me, and I was trapped and fully committed to this endeavor. That did not cause me concern. Having patronized this drive through in the past, I still believed I would be on my way home with the beverage in short order.
After some time of sitting there some sort of internal clock started to alert me to the fact that I should be proceeding through the line but was not. I began to pay attention to things and saw that nobody was moving. Not only was I trapped, but I was making no progress and more and more vehicles were lining up behind me.
Sitting there, reluctantly accepting my fate, I looked over at the banner that hangs on the back of the building facing the drive through. This desperate attempt to procure employees had been there since 2020 when Covid reduced available employees all over the U.S. This McDonald’s was paying $15/hour as a starting wage to come and work here. At a standard 40 hour work week, that was a salary of over $30,000/year to cook and serve food at this facility. Yet the line did not move, and the sign did not come down.
I finally made it to the kiosk where I was not greeted with a “welcome to McDonald’s” or any other such kindness. No appreciation for my business was given by the voice on the other end, for it was straight to the matter at hand. “Are you ordering using the app” sternly came out of the speaker. I replied that I had no such app. “Okay, what will you have” was the disappointed reply.
Understanding that I was a fortunate person in my vocation, and that this person was likely stressed due to low staffing and in a life stage that caused financial stress, I replied with my friendliest tone, “a large unsweet iced tea please”. “Is that it” came the reply. “Yes” I answered. The voice said “Okay, that will be $1.69” and I sensed a hint of sarcasm in the voice. He knew what I did not know. It was going to be a long wait for that iced tea.
For the next 20 minutes I slowly inched forward by only one car length as I watched the car that was at the delivery window sit and idle with no exchange happening between the driver and the McDonald’s employee on the other side. To pass the time I listened to an audio book and played with the features and technology in this new car, attempting to learn about all of its capabilities.
After an abundance of time had passed the vehicle at the window finally departed. I never did witness the transaction, so I cannot say whether or not they were served. Even after its departure there were two vehicles between the window and myself, and I quickly did the math. The reason behind the employees sarcastic tone of voice suddenly dawned on me. An iced tea was not worth all this. Nothing was worth all this.
To my great fortune, when the two vehicles in front of me moved forward, it exposed an escape from the drive through. A second lane to the right of the vehicles was exposed, and I had access that was not impeded in any way. The decision was quick and involved no debate in my mind. I pulled into that lane and literally escaped. I would not enjoy a delicious McDonald’s iced tea that evening, but the taste of freedom more than compensated for the loss as I again listened for wind noise on my way back to the farm.
Within days of the attacks of September 11th, 2001 President George W Bush told Americans to get out and spend money in one of his several addresses to the nation. He advocated for shopping, going to restaurants and going to movies.
At the time, all I could hear were the instructions to spend, spend, spend and I resented that our elected leader was giving such instructions. However, looking back today, I can see that our economy is built on consumption and it is like a train speeding down the tracks that has lost its breaks. All you can do is ride it and try to control it because stopping is impossible. Ultimately, this train will stop and that stop is likely to be catastrophic. Nobody wants to be sitting in the engineers seat when that catastrophe occurs.
George W Bush didn’t want that for our country, and he certainly didn’t want it as we were preparing to go to war or while he was in office. A catastrophe of that magnitude would have given the terrorists an even larger victory, and the ripple effects could have inspired more terrorist attacks for decades to come. Our president was a man with no other course of action, and “spend, spend, spend” was the patriotic thing for Americans to do.
As for me and my family, we failed to do our patriot duty as requested by the president. My wife and I were in our third year of marriage, had owned our first home for under a year and were just building our careers. We stayed the course of our values, lived below our means and tried to build our future by not panicking and withdrawing our meager retirement savings from the stock market after its free fall, following the attacks.
It has been over 22 years since that event and that request by our president. It has become apparent to me that we were in the minority, and the bulk of Americans were very willing to “spend, spend, spend”.
I see my experience last night at that McDonald’s drive through as the culmination of this economic philosophy and the willingness of free Americans to participate. The dozens of people trapped in that drive through, me included, have become numb to the ramifications of this “spend, spend, spend” policy. We tolerate long lines, poor customer service and mediocre products just for the illusion of convenience or the small dopamine hit that accompanies spending money.
In my 50 years, I have had the misfortune of seeing our society abandon the practice of being discerning consumers for the chaos of “spend, spend, spend.” And I have seen a complete shift in the balance of power from consumer to producer. Our people today are so eager to buy, that they tolerate poor customer service and a poor buying experience as merely a source of strain that must be dealt with to get the next material possession. This is normal for my daughter, but it is detestable to me.
Ironically, this is leading to disaster for the working class that rely on customer service positions for their wages. Managers and owners of retail establishments once devoted a much larger portion of their time to insuring that the customer experience was pleasurable. Either intuitively or after careful research, it is apparent that retailers realized that this was no longer necessary. Customers will still purchase no matter how they are treated, so customer service standards have been abandoned, and those energies have been directed elsewhere.
This has given rise to self-checkout in grocery stores and restaurants like the very McDonald’s I attempted to patronize. It has given rise to apps that are transforming food service employees from customer service providers to merely arms length delivery people. And, it will eventually eliminate these jobs altogether. If tacit permission is given to businesses to exchange service for efficiency by consumers, they will, of course, make that transition. What’s worse, the employees who are participating in this transition are actually justifying the elimination of their own positions when they have the power to make themselves more valuable.
Before proceeding I will admit a bias that I have that harkens back to the “good o’l days”. In the late 1980’s and very early 1990’s I worked at a grocery store for a stretch of just over 3 years. This was for a local grocery chain that had served the community for several decades. Side conversations between checkers and baggers at the checkout were prohibited and monitored, and ignoring customers or treating them like a burden could result in your termination.
When I was a bagger speed and efficiency were values that pervaded the store. We ran from check stand to check stand, bagging groceries in the prescribed manner with great speed. All the while we made conversation with the customers and showed our gratitude for them shopping there. For a customer to walk out of the store without a bagger pushing their cart for them, talking with them the entire way and then loading the groceries into their car for them there would almost have to be an argument before the bagger would relent and allow the customer to leave unassisted.
Today, every grocery store has a growing number of self-checkout stations. I almost always go through self-checkout in order to avoid the irritation that I experience when I am treated poorly at a check stand. This decision has not been made haphazardly, as I feel a kinship with grocery store employees. However, the bad experiences now outweigh the positive, and I do my best to not allow my time at the grocery to impact my day in a negative manner.
What abhors me the most about this abandonment of customer service is watching employees contribute to the destruction of their jobs while it happens right in front of them. And, to some extent, damaging their futures. After all, when you apply for a better job in the future and you highlight three years of “customer service experience” at a retail establishment on your resume with the hopes that it will tip the scales in your favor, it will do no good for you if your interviewer finds this meaningless because actual customer service has been abandoned in exchange for customers who serve employees by trying to reduce the irritation the employees feel when having to actually serve.
Take the juxtaposition of my grocery store employee experience in the 1980’s to my grocery store consumer experience in the 2010’s. Sometime in the past decade or so, my wife and I began fully participating in consumer rewards programs at places that we must patronize, such as grocery stores. We don’t allow rewards programs to get us to purchase goods that we do not need, but we take advantage of them at the grocery store because we will be shopping there at some level, no matter what. With these rewards programs generally comes the requirement that at checkout you enter your phone number so that the purchase is counted towards your balance.
Sometime in 2018 or 2019 I went to our local grocery store which has a program such as this. This particular location had a bit of construction going on at the front end. Four self-checkouts had been installed, and two more check stands had been removed to make way for four more. I was still of the mindset that I should purchase my groceries from an actual person in order to vote with my dollars to preserve the jobs of these folks.
On this day I approached an open check stand and waited in line for a few moments to purchase from and support an employee who needed this job for income. The checker at this station was a young lady that I estimated to be in her early 20’s, and the bagger (we now call them courtesy clerks) was a young man that I estimated to be in his late teens. They were fully engaged in a side conversation about a later get together involving co-workers, and I received the overwhelming impression that the young man was hoping to spend time with the cashier away from work.
I only needed one item, and as it made its way down the conveyor belt towards the cashier, I walked up to credit card reader where I would pay for the purchase and enter my rewards number. I was never greeted by either of the employees, and I was talked to only three times. The first address I received was from the cashier who asked in an annoyed voice if I had a rewards number. I diligently entered the number and swiped my credit card like a child trying to please a domineering parent and hoping to avoid an escalation in household tensions.
The side conversation between the cashier and her hopeful suitor went on, and was broken only by the irritating duty to tell me how much money I was required to provide the store in exchange for the item I wanted to purchase. I made a mental note of that fact nobody was bothering to pay attention to me, ask how my day was going or provide any other standard of customer service.
The third communication was from the “courtesy clerk” who simply asked “do you want a bag?” By this time I was boiling up inside. However, I had been verbally abused when I was a grocery clerk, and I certainly did not want to allow my temper to transform me from the once abused to the abuser. So, I calmly asked “you guys don’t say hello or how is your day anymore?” Both of them could not have been more shocked at the nerve of a customer to be critical of their performance, and I received a quick, disingenuous “sorry about that”. For his money, I never did see the courtesy clerk do a bit of work. The extent of what I witnessed was the question “do you want a bag?”
Far be it from me to think that I never engaged in a side conversation or got distracted when I held either of these positions as a teenager. However, as I walked towards the exit door I passed the existing self-checkout machines and the area that was being prepared for even more robots.
The irony of the situation dawned on me at that moment. There is one thing, and one thing only, that robots will never able to do, and that is provide genuine customer service. No matter how good the human to machine interface becomes in the future, customers speaking with a robot will always know that the robot is responding to a set of stimuli and what comes back is the product of a computer program or algorithm, i.e. it is not genuine and really means nothing.
The employees at grocery stores or fast food restaurants have the power to put an end to robots replacing their jobs. If they become so indispensable to customers through the service, conversation and genuineness, customers will not tolerate purchasing from robots. Then companies would be forced to cease this new direction because customers would demand this by either complaining verbally or shifting their dollars to places that provide excellent customer service.
Until consumers actually prioritize the service they receive when making buying decisions, companies will have no incentive to change directions. And, employees at this level of the service industry are likely not looking at their jobs as a career. Rather, they believe that these jobs are merely a means to an end until they move onto something better. Therefore, whether or not they actually ever do move one, they are not interested in looking at what they do holistically and making changes that will improve their position. And, their immediate supervisors are not interested in pushing them in this direction because the companies are moving in the direction of automation and it is not in their best interests. Therefore, there will never be any organizing force that will push employees to improve customer service, at their own best interest, en mass.
As the available working pool that comes up through these jobs is not required to provide customer service, the options for hiring at the next level becomes smaller and smaller. Soon, this degrading of customer service spreads into more sophisticated postings and it just keeps repeating itself.
The root cause or causes of this degradation goes by many names - consumerism, materialism, consumption, etc. The causes of this shift to consumerism could be debated for decades with fingers of blame being pointed in all directions.
What is clear, is that this is the world that we now live in. The days of businesses, “earning your business” have passed us by. Of course you can find businesses that still do earn your dollars, but we all know that they are the exception, not the rule. And, we all should pay a little more and put up with a little more inconvenience to support them, lest our world turn exclusively to self-checkout stands and streets clogged with delivery vans from internet purchases.
Americans are no longer discerning consumers. We want it now, we want it cheap and we want a lot of it. For that, we are willing to tolerate poor to no customer service, clutter in our homes, debt and a lack of savings as we approach our retirement years.
These are just the manifestations that can be outwardly observed or measured. Larger and more important than this is the further degradation of our society. Anger, detachment and irritation are all cumulative. Americans once came home from their day in aggrieved moods from some major conflict in society only rarely. Because this did not happen very often, the overall mood of our country was more positive, friendly and helpful.
Today, we still may not experience a major conflict in our day, but we come home in horribly negative and angry moods more often than ever. Instead of the cause being a major conflict, it is the cumulative effect of multiple small conflicts or irritations that we experience through the day or the week. It is the colloquial “death by a thousand cuts”.
This is an increasingly negative cycle. In the past if you provided service all day at work, you were rewarded by receiving service when you transitioned from service provider to consumer later in the day. We rewarded each other for our hard work with gratefulness. However, today we are providing service all day at work only to be made to feel like we must provide service or at least minimize irritation in order to be consumers. And this can only go on so long before the very same consumer decides to stop providing service in their job, and the cycle repeats itself.
And this is all caused by our incessant need to consume and purchase. We want “things” so badly, that we are willing to tolerate almost anything to obtain them. Therefore, as consumers we have removed the incentive of companies to provide customer service. Gone are the days of speaking with the manager and telling them that you came to spend money but are taking your business elsewhere because of the way you were treated. Today we just expect the bad service as something we must tolerate to get the thing we want to purchase.
“Spend, spend, spend”, “buy, buy, buy” and “bye-bye-bye” to our quality of life, society and the bonds that hold us all together.