Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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Economonic quality

926 words

While I am not a big fan of the economic and business sections of the news nor have an inherent interest in them, I still tend to read or at least skim them. After all they’re about the people who own and rule our lives and it may be an advantage to keep abreast with what they are up to.

However, I frequently find that even in quality papers the worst writing and journalism is found in the economy / business sections. Perhaps their area is so ‘important’ for us these days that they don’t have to write well, but I’d much prefer them writing well anyway.

This week’s example can be found in German weekly Die Zeit: An article on the DIY aspects of many modern businesses. The point made in there is a valid one – many businesses these days let the customer do some of the work they are meant to be doing. And the customer will frequently do that work - rather happily even, thus providing part of the service himself. Strangely doing this work yourself doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to pay less for the service these days.

That certainly is a valid point and it’s worth investigating. Not only would it seem worthy to discuss the role of many online services in this picture which place a lot of the burden shopping on their customers, which even successfully encourage their customers to provide free reviews, ratings and recommendations and which frequently don’t beat local retailers in price once you account for shipping cost (and I haven’t even touched the ‘working customer’ in those modern ‘social networking’ sites yet). But there also might be a similar trend ‘in real life’. For example you’ve got hugely successful places like Starbucks who charge the same (or more) for a coffee than a traditional cafe would, but still make you queue for it yourself rather than providing service at your table. Similarly other shops may just offer less service by having less staff around.

The article touches those points and they are fair game. Although they may lack subtlety as it would certainly be worth to have a look at the finer aspects here – such as the dumbing down of the service by hiring underpaid uneducated temps who waste the customers’ time rather than qualified competent people; such as delegating a lot of the ‘service’ to call centres where your time is wasted first in waiting queues and then in some scripted rubbish.

But it also touches points which suggest the authors are a bit out of touch. For example the Ikea point. Which essentially is that you, the customer has to first find the relevant furniture in their store, the you have to get it home yourself and then you have to assemble it yourself to give the finished product. All of that is true. But what would be the alternative? Choosing yourself, having it delivered and assembled. Actually I think Ikea will do exactly that for you as well – if you want them to do it and if you want to pay for it. And guess what, most people don’t want to. Perhaps they don’t want to or cannot afford to spend all the money for delivery and assembling the things. And they feel comfortable spending twenty minutes doing some Lego style assembly of wood pieces – with the extra benefit of not having to wait for the delivery guy to turn up at some inconvenient time. I don’t really see how I’m getting a bad deal here. I buy affordable furniture, take it home and assemble it myself. My parents buy expensive furniture and have people deliver it and set it up for them. You get what you pay for.

Another example they give is weighing groceries in the supermarket. And that is a point I have kept and eye on in the past years because when I lived in England, in all the supermarkets the fruit and veg were just weighed at the checkout. When I returned to Germany I ended up looking like an idiot because I forgot that you are supposed to weigh the stuff yourself (and put a little printed sticker with a barcode on it) when you grab it from the shelves. I had completely forgotten about that and was annoyed by it every time I went shopping. And the article mentions exactly that point. So I should be happy, right? — Wrong. Because if there has been an encouraging trend in German retail in the past years, it must have been that most supermarkets moved to the fruit and veg being weighed at the checkout as well… thus finally providing a reasonable amount of service (and probably reducing the amount of loss by people ‘adjusting’ the weight when weighing things themselves). Thus the authors seem to be out of touch.

There were other examples as well – like the postal service starting to set up machines where you can pick up your parcels. Sounds like less service because they are supposed to deliver them… but on the other hand most people just aren’t at home when the parcel guy arrives and will only receive a card telling them where they can pick the parcel up anyway. So this option of being able to pick things up right away doesn’t look like worse but like better service (of course having your parcel delivered in the evening or something might be even better service… but it seems unlikely that we’ll get that.

September 25, 2006, 1:50

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