Vintage Business #10: Say Goodbye to Service

Dress Shopping

Ever try to actually get help at those big super stores like Wal-Mart? It’s a joke. The commercials for Home Depot make it look like there’s a fella’ at every aisle just waiting to help you with your next project – eager to show you in intricate detail how to build your child’s new tree house.

Yeah right. We all know how it goes down. It takes an eternity to even find someone to help you, and when you do actually flag somebody down they are either (A) hopelessly confused, (B) extremely put out by you, or (C) both A and B.

Of course, the guys mixing your paint, flipping your burgers and bagging your groceries are paid a salary that is well below the poverty level, they receive no benefits, and have absolutely no job security (and thus no company loyalty) whatsoever. If I were in that situation, there’s no doubt I’d be a disgruntled SOB and develop of white hot hatred for customers.

And while it’s true that there’s still employees out there that are helpful and appreciative of their job, the service oriented jobs simply do not exist anymore. A lot of these jobs we used to take for granted are now long gone. A few glaring examples…

The Grocery Store
It pains me to see women, with kids in tow, trying to get their groceries to their car. No one is there to help her out. The friendly butcher who you got to know is also largely a thing of the past.

The Gas Station
I know Oregon still requires gas stations to be full service; however, most everywhere else you are doing it all yourself. Long gone are the days when a guy would check your oil, tire pressure, wash your windows and pump your gas.

The Department Store
Every department used to be manned by a team of knowledgeable salesmen. They’d be camped out in the washer and dryer section, in the stereo department, in the menswear department, in the TV department, all dressed in a jacket and tie. Sure, they could be overbearing at times, but they were there to help.

The Airline Industry
Look no further than my "Groovy Age of Travel" posts to see how far away from the friendly, comfortable service we've come.  Gone are the meals (unless you're traveling around the world four times, then I guess they have to feed you), the beautiful airline hostesses, and the pleasant airport experience. 

I could go on and on. I could mention the ushers at the movie theater, the Al Bundys at the shoe store, the doctors who made house calls, the guys at the barbershop, the coat and hat checkers, the mechanics…. the list goes on. When you take time to look at it, you start to realize that, when it comes to spending our money, we’re on our own.

I suppose there’s a reasonable explanation for all this. Businesses simply realized it wasn’t cost efficient to hire a team of salesmen to man the refrigerator department and give you the best price at Sears…. especially not at a living wage!

And perhaps it brings the cost of those refrigerators down when you do not have to pay a qualified sales team. So, in the long run, we benefit, right? Or does that extra cash go into the CEO’s bank account in the Camen Islands? I don’t know – I’m not an economist. But I am qualified to say this sucks big time. I want my service industry back.

The General Store


  1. Wow, awesome post--when you gradually lose these people over the years, you can sometimes forget how things were. (And that's interesting about Oregon having full service stations, I honestly can't remember the last time I had my gas pumped by an attendant--Lord it must be 20 years!)

    This reminds me of being a kid & the week before school started--I'd go with my mom to the local GC Murphys shoe dept & there'd be a line of boys and girls each waiting their turn, while you watched a couple kids having their toes pinched "How's that, you have enough room to wiggle?" and being told to walk back n' forth. I always equated it with going to the doctor, buying shoes was something you didn't do on your own. I guess self-service medical centers are next!

  2. We were pretty lucky in that the credit-card-at-the-pump thing came about when we had small kids. Before that, mom had to leave the kids unattended in the car or bring the kids out of the car and into the station to pay. What a pain!

    There are times I am willing to pay more to find someone who knows what he's talking about. Electronics, hardware, auto parts, whatever.

    Also, I'm willing to pay more to get American (or at least non-communist) made stuff.

    One last thought: Oh, to be a shoe salesman in the age of the miniskirt!

  3. In New Jersey, not only are there gas station attendants who pump it for you, there's nothing else. You're not allowed to pump your own gas in the Garden State. I have no idea why.

  4. I can sort of excuse the clerks in the big, warehouse stores because they really are paid minimal wages, but the airlines really irritate me. The flight attendants seem to take sadistic joy in being rude and nasty to you. It's bad enough we're stuck in a stuffy, cramped tube for several hours; there's no need to berate me and hit me with your drink cart the whole time as well.

  5. We try to shop only at higher end stores where service is still expected by the customer. Like Byerly's grocery stores in the Twin Cities, Von Maur department stores (free shipping!), mom & pop hardware stores, etc. The extra cost is more than worth the shopping experience. But yeah, full service gas stations need to make a comeback.

  6. Interesting... In Mexico (where I live) ALL service stations are full service. And more often than not the guy that pumps your gas will ask if you want your oil or tire pressure checked. Also "Al Bundy's" in shoe stores are still very much in existence here.

  7. It's not just the people you saw on the floor.

    My dad spent decades years working for Sears, Roebuck and Company from the late 1950s until the early 1990s.

    He was a display manager. Corporate would set standards for displaying items, but each store was sort of customized by its display manager.

    Outside his office, he had a carpentry shop, a sign shop with a letter press, a paint shop with a sandblasting cabinet. It was really cool.

    His staff was fantastic. Some of these guys were artisans. They could make anything.

    All of those jobs are gone. Now one store looks exactly the same as all the others, and the signs just come in a big box. You'd be hard-pressed to find 15 people in Sears that don't make minimum wage.

    Makes me sad. That company sent me to college and provided a comfortable retirement for my parents. Now it's all history.

  8. One more thing: You can't expect service if you expect to pay $25 for a DVD player. The math just doesn't work.

  9. I've never had any trouble finding someone knowledgeable about electronics in a Best Buy, and my local grocery chains all have employees helping mothers with kids or the elderly to their cars. However I do not understand this NJ/Oregon thing about gas station attendants. Actually, that was my first job as a teenager, so I think full-service is a good thing.

  10. I think that's the first time "knowledgeable" and "Best Buy" have ever been used in the same sentence without being negative. At best, they usually know how to do the double-talk marketing speak to trick you into buying something more expensive, like $150 HDMI cables.

  11. Fareway, a grocery store chain in the MidWest, has kids who will take your groceries to your car.

    If armpit studios and Gilligan represent a large segment of the population then there is a real opportunity for some firm or businessperson to start a new chain of stores to compete with WalMart and Target, stores that sell the same basic stuff as those chains, but with a better trained, better educated, more carefully vetted staff. It would be interesting to see if people would be willing to pay more for better service. I don't think they would, in an age when you can research what fridge or sedan or even peanut butter is best for you online for free, but it would be nice if the choice was there.

  12. There's no way people would pay more. It's been tried already. Wal Mart won and the old menswear store downtown lost.

  13. Sadly, mporcius, most people are NOT willing to pay more for better service or quality. It's like Americans' sole purpose is to find the best deal and pay the least for everything. My MiL is very wealthy, retired, and single, yet she buys store brand foods and runs all over town to find a sale or use a 25¢-off coupon. She was brought up during hard times, so that probably has a lot to do with it. Yet others were brought up during prosperous times and still talk only about where you can pay the least for something rather than where you can find something that will perform best and last the longest.

  14. If we placed a premium on quality and service, you couldn't get a DVD player for $25. But if we still believed in those values, most people could still afford one, because they would be working at the kind of good-paying jobs that made it possible. The way we're going, everything will soon be cheap, easy, and fast, but eventually there will be nobody left to buy it.

    A lot of people today don't want you to believe this, but good capitalism is a cooperative enterprise. Nobody can expect to get something for nothing. But that's exactly what today's corporations and consumers do expect. It certainly looks like a good deal on the front end, but eventually we all pay by having to survive in an increasingly unstable society.

  15. John, I don't believe I've ever heard it put more succinctly. Well said.

  16. I started to write a long post here but I'm not an economist. I'm sure Paul Krugman could explain it. Americans have become accustomed to paying the lowest price and aren't willing to pay for service. But they will still complain about poor service while buying that $25 DVD player. It's the same with government. People want government services but aren't willing to pay the taxes for it. And then complain when services are cut.

  17. It seems that the thorough service is the privilege the wealthy nowadays: they go to exclusive stores where they get service worth every dollar they spend. Putting on the Ritz...

  18. I'll reiterate what several folks have said.

    Grocery Stores: Our local Publix and Kroger's folks always ask if I want help out. I'm a 35 year old guy, who usually gets to leave the kids at home.

    Gas Stations: Some states mandate service. Indiana (outside Bloomington) had at least 1 full/ self serve station when I lived there. What I miss is the sign that says "MECHANIC ON DUTY" b/c sometimes getting to a mechanic is a pain.

    Department Stores: The Macy's, Belk, and Nordstroms I've been forced to endure have had helpful sales staff. Ditto the Talbotts by my folks. The JC Penny, not so much.

    Airlines: Well, yeah.

  19. Wonderful when a post can generate deep thinking about what we do in our everyday lives. There are countless reasons *not* to shop at the big stores, ranging from environmental and social justice concerns to the economic health of our own nation. Many folks have made the point about shopping at independent buisnesses, but I'd like to add:

    Personally, I'm surprised whenever I learn that people (who are solvent) think solely about their wallets when considering a purchase. For me, many other factors go into the "cost" of an item. If, for example, an item is produced in a way I wouldn't support, then automatically that item becomes more "expensive." It simply isn't worth buying anymore, no matter what the number is on the tag.

    Gilligan - as regards whether the money went straight into the CEO's bank accounts, I rather suspect most of it did, and only marginally did the loss of service jobs affect price. I'm not an economist, though, just a cynic ;D. Maybe prices came down more due to manufacturing processes than to loss of service jobs, although perhaps one can't really distinguish those two phenomena.

    And, I'm totally on board (pun!) with those complaints about the airlines. Hard-core environmentalists won't fly unless someone's dying, but every now and then the necessity arises, and then you have to deal with THEM. I've never gotten smashed with the drink cart, though, neal p! Trying to change a toddler's diaper in the miniscule lavatory with no help was hard enough! I remember an airline commercial from childhood, detailing everything a stewardess did -- and she was depicted holding and trying to comfort a baby to help the poor mom who was attending another child. I don't know whether that could happen today, or whether attendants are legally prohibited from touching the children...

  20. Ya - Full Service - you used to be able to hire a girl of the evening and get full service- now the younger ones you still end up doing it yourself !!!

  21. Airlines & Full Service - Boy do I remember those days back in the late 1960's & Early 1970's - as well as the Beautiful Boeing 707's and 727's, with real Stewardesses that was considered a Glamorous Job back then, and Airline Pilots were thought of like CEO's & Presidents of large companies with such respect - now, they treat em' all like their salvage yard workers, and service, ya service now days - you get to get Inspected - Fingered - probed - touched where ya don't want be - X-Rayed - Fondled - Grouped - Molested - practically Raped - just to take an hour or two flight somehere , Yip Folks were slowly goin down hill fast and the process seems to be speeding up everyday ! I was on YOU Tube the other nite checking out AM-TRAK Video's, at least you have a place to sleep if you get hung up, for a long period of time, where as a plane - they have ya begging for water and to get off the plane anymore, while your stuck on the tarmac - Welcome to the New Millenium, the so-called Space Age, as they tried to tell us kids back in the 70's era ! God, just let me go back to the 70's, think I'd be happier than what I'm seeing here now ! Have a good Day everybody - I'm jumpin back in my time machine - back to 1972 and go to sleep and Dream ~!!

  22. @jetranger -- And lest we forget, to paraphrase a 1972 commercial, "Remember what it was like when stewardesses wore hotpants?" :)

    I would definitely give Amtrak a second look. Sometimes the on-time performance isn't so great, and the service can be spotty from one train to the next, but you still have a much better chance of getting a pleasant experience than you do on a plane.

  23. Am I the only one to notice that the lady in the first picture appears to be a cross dresser?

  24. I try to avoid the big box hardware stores like Home Depot and Lowe's, since whenever I've needed help just trying to find something, invariably the employees are tied up talking to someone who wants instruction in how to build a house. I go to a smaller store (Orchard Supply Hardware) in CA. There, more often than not, an employee will see me clueless, and even offer guidance on what type of whatever-I'm-buying is best for the job I'm doing.

  25. Yeah, we all know airlines suck today, but what do you expect when they've made it so "easy" to fly. I never even stepped foot on a plane until I was in my mid 20's and that was a splurge. Today, every spoiled teenager and college kid thinks it's nothing to fly across the country for spring break or just to check out Florida or Vegas or maybe they have an important soccer match in California. Flying used to be a little more exclusive and adult, now is supposed to be as easy as taking a bus. The price needs to go up, way up, to weed out some of the riff-raff. Then maybe the airlines could afford some old-fashioned service again. As for the security, a hassle to be sure but when you're cruising at 30,000 ft knowing your probably not going to be hijacked into a building, it might be worth it.