Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Where's My Service?

photo: Grant Kennedy

Bron Williams contemplates the beginning of a new era

Written Christmas 2008

Arriving at Wellington Airport for a flight to Dunedin recently I was unnerved to be greeted not by smiling airport ladies, but by two monstrous space-like rounds in the centre of the departures terminal. A big sign screeched “Welcome to the new Self Check-in!”

I cowered in the corner awhile, observing others as they fumbled their way through the automated check-in before finding the courage to tackle the beast myself. After a few false starts, I managed to blunder through the ticket printing part, but got completely wrapped up in my sticky luggage tag. That was when I admitted defeat and walked, baggage sticker tangled in my fingers, to ask assistance from a not so smiling airport lady. In a few swift moves, she untangled me from my mess, printed off a new tag, applied it correctly (giving me a few steely glances while doing so, just to make me squirm), took my bag and swept me on my way. With tail between my legs I sloped off to recover with a coffee.

Some time later in the herding pen that they call boarding gates, I met an old acquaintance of mine, also Dunedin bound. After relaying my tale of anguish, he nodded vigorously in agreement and confessed to how he too had been bewildered by the new check-in. He had stood dumbly at the self-drop conveyor belt until someone had come to his aid, prying the bag from his hand and placing it for him on the belt. “I couldn’t do it – it felt naughty to be doing it myself” he explained.

The airport self check-in is just the beginning of a new phenomenon sweeping our cities. 2009 will be noted as the year of The Death of Service. Wellington public transport has caught onto the self service trend, introducing the Snapper card. Pre-loaded with funds, the snapper card allows the bearer to “Snap on and Snap off” city buses by simply swiping their card over scanning machines situated in the doorways of each bus. No contact with bus driver necessary. Originating in Hong Kong and London, the re-loadable transport card has made its’ way to our capital, and soon will be taken up in Auckland. Obviously aware of the major profits possible in such a scheme, large companies Infratil, ANZ, National Bank, NZ Post, Eyede, Unisys and Beca Group are all getting involved in the Snapper card. With the GPS traceable snapper card soon to be usable to pay for your morning coffee, it may be possible for others to track your every move. Snapper Services general manager Charles Monheim comments on the power of the scheme: "Not only will it be used for small value purchases, parking and public transport, but it is our expectation it will be used in various ways for access control and loyalty schemes.”

Tracking forward to Christmas Eve, I was lined up amongst the madness of last minute shopping in New World supermarket to try out the recently installed self-service check-out system. A total of 16 self check-out machines were supervised by two young staff members whose duties were to support shoppers through their self-purchasing experience, and to supervise our honesty. There definitely is a certain degree of trust involved in the self check-out procedure. Shoppers can take advantage of the system in many ways, from incorrectly naming an item ($8.99/kg button mushrooms in place of the actual $11.99 flat browns), to scanning one cheese and placing two in your bag.

While there are precautions put in place to minimise this sort of criminal gallivantary in form of cameras and bag weighing stations, the financial risk analysts would have surely taken this all into account. They must have concluded that, customer dishonesty put aside, they still made profit. And what a profit it must be. Where I usually have time to skim read both Woman’s Weekly and New Idea in the time it takes to get from the back of a pre-Christmas queue to the check-out, this time I had barely picked up my first gossip rag of choice before the polite coughs of a customer behind me alerted me to the empty self check-out machine in front of me. We positively whizzed through that checkout line, with minimal waiting.

On board our flight, my acquaintance and I reminisced about a certain café that opened on George Street in Dunedin about 5 years ago, attempting the then unheard of approach of self-service. The café consisted of a number of holes in a white wall into which you posted money, and after a bit of button pressing you were presented with your order of burger or fry, which popped out of a small microwave sized door beside you. Apparently there were actually people behind the mysterious white wall making your food, but no one knew for sure. The whole structure had the feeling of a public urinal, the fluorescent signage overhead being about the only thing alerting you to the fact that it was not.
[I understand that the café was often mistaken for a toilet by students on their late-night stumbles home - but then most shop fronts look like urinals to a drunken Dunedinite.]

As you can imagine, the hole in the wall café didn’t last two months. This could have been partly due to the unappetising food on offer, but most likely because its’ self-service idea was just way ahead of it’s time. Five years ago in Dunedin nobody accepted an impersonal machine in place of real people, but today this development is taking over our airports, buses and lives. It is only a matter of time before our old friends of the urinal café dredge up their business plan and re-presents it to New Zealand with great success.

With more and more people in the service sector losing their jobs to machines; our future may be one where café culture and smiling service people are but a fast fading memory. Sounds over the top but you better believe it. The next step is to replace all the waitresses at your local coffee joint with robots…


  1. Also, there are far fewer counters at the Air New Zealand end. Sad to note. Even parking at the airport is now machine-done. Call me old-fashioned but to this day I still have refused to use ATMs (I count three times in my entire life, every time abroad when I didn’t have the local currency) because I want to keep people in banks working.

  2. Didn't realise the Snapper was GPS traceable. Cree-py.

    Although I did get that eery 'big brother' feeling when I bought my first card... Maybe I should just pay retail. Fifty extra cents is not too high a price on peace of mind.