On fast food dining, brick-and-mortar stores, and how future retail experiences might look a little like flying First Class
From the McDonald's on Chicago Avenue to the CVS Pharmacy at the end of Bourbon Street, self-service kiosks have been replacing live cashiers for quite a while now. The mass-scale adoption of the tools, now seen everywhere from Target to Home Depot to even Flying J Truck Stops, has been meet with more than a few protests from people who dislike the experience. Some compare it to being made into an unpaid employee of the retailer.
■ But it is a structural change, with no chance of going back. The costs of installing the scanners and other hardware have fallen by so much that self-service checkout has moved from novelty to mainstream in very short time. With low unemployment rates persisting and competitive pressures from online retailers sustaining, there will be no meaningful pressure for brick-and-mortar outlets to turn back.
■ Just as people today occasionally fawn over the perceived glamour of airline travel in the days before deregulation, people will someday pine nostalgically for the days before self-service displaced most human cashiers. But it's worth noting that some of the accoutrements that made classic airline travel look high-class were there because they offered means for airlines to distinguish themselves when they couldn't do the same with price.
■ Airline travelers are objectively better-off today than before deregulation; the experience may not appear as high-class, but flying is vastly safer and more affordable now than it was then. Likewise, we'll come to see that self-service will tend to make consumers better-off by keeping physical retail outlets in business and able to offer merchandise at competitive prices when they might not have been under the old status quo.
■ The self-service experience will seem inconvenient to some, but just as a premium air travel experience remains available on most airlines (for passengers willing to pay for First Class tickets), we'll see a "premium" checkout experience remain in some physical retail stores -- possibly at a higher price, with a "convenience fee" added for those who choose human checkout clerks. For the rest of us, the adjustment to a new baseline of self-service may remain jarring when it shows up in places we haven't seen it before, but it's here for good (and to some degree, for our own good).