Consumers as Volunteers

It seemed to happen slowly and then all at once. Anecdotally, over the last two decades I would observe small changes in the businesses I (or my parents) interacted with as a consumer. The Blockbuster stores of my youth were transformed first by Netflix’s mailing service and RedBox and then permanently made obsolete by streaming services. Tickets used on busses and lunch account personnel were replaced by scanners for school IDs. And of course, a section of self-checkout stalls popped up in every grocery store.

Some of these automated entities required more work of the user. For example, those using self-checkout at the grocery store must scan and likely pack all of their own items. However, the speed and efficiency with which this can be accomplished often negates the extra effort on the part of the consumer. In the circumstance of the versatility of scannable school IDs, the consumer does need to keep track of their school ID, rather than just supplying their name or an account number, and needs to remember to bring it. There is some extra effort required on the part of the consumer that is necessary in order to negate the role of the previous intermediary employee who existed between the consumer and the database.

Target Self Check Out, 6/2016, Newington, CT pics by Mike Mozart of TheToyChannel and JeepersMedia on YouTube #Target #Self #Check #Out
“Target Self Check Out, 6/2016, Newington, CT pics by Mike Mozart of TheToyChannel and JeepersMedia on YouTube #Target #Self #Check #Out” by JeepersMedia is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This is a partial description of the consumer as a volunteer employee phenomenon described by Chayko in Superconnected (2018). We are seeing this phenomenon develop rapidly in virtually every industry. Mobile banking apps frequently replace the need to visit a branch, online payments and scheduling for classes increases efficiency and decreases the necessary number of paid employees. Of this development, Chayko writes, “Customers willingly participate in the production of the product or service, even as they consume and sometimes pay for the experience” (2018). I find the generalized perspective in this chapter to have degrees of accuracy and inaccuracy.

First, it is true that consumers are often required, or at least heavily encouraged by automation and digital services, to participate more readily in their own service. As mentioned above, a greater demand is put on the consumer in circumstances such as using a self-checkout. However, I would posit two objections to the general perspective that this is a negative. First, currently the choice for consumers remains for many of these services. Traditional bank branches, check out lines, and stores in which videos can be purchased still exist. One could make the argument that these systems may be become obsolete and it is just taking longer, but I would suggest that is a simplification of the broader trend. One of Chayko’s primary predictions of this trend is that as the consumer takes on more responsibility, businesses are the sole benefactor. Businesses that currently provide traditional and automated options are already exploring additional convenience-based uses of technology that actually do require more effort on their end.

Consider the booming trend of grocery pickup. Many grocery stores are allowing their customers to fill virtual carts from the comfort of home, select a pickup time, and have their groceries delivered to their car without even having to exit the vehicle for free. It is even a common policy to substitute an item that a customer ordered with a more expensive or numerous option in the event that the original item selection is unavailable at no extra cost. For example, in my own grocery pickup order, I had selected a 40 pack of an item. The store did not have the 40 pack in stock, so I was given two 24 packs at the same price. This model requires significantly less work from me, more work on the part of the business as someone has to fill my entire order, and puts the business at a very real potential for loss as customers receive more expensive substitutions at a lower price.

A second argument in support of automated digital services is customer convenience. Consider using a banking app to deposit a check versus going into a branch. Yes, technically at the branch a customer service representative assists you and performs part of the functions of the interaction. On a banking app you are responsible for the entire interaction. However, does this necessarily mean more work for the customer or just less work for everyone? Personally, I detest going to the bank, waiting in line, shuffling my toddler from one worn out hip to the other while I dig through my bag to find my wallet. It is exponentially preferable to me to open an app on my phone that recognizes my face and gives me immediate access to all of my accounts and many services. Although, that is many services, not all. More specialized services such as loan assistance still require the customer to go into the branch and, if my bank’s 30-minute-long checkout line is any indicator, customer service representatives are not lacking for business.

Ultimately, it is difficult to predict exactly where these trends will lead. It is frightening to consider, but leaps of human ingenuity have occurred in the past and fundamental tenets of ethics, morality, and decency have generally won out. I hold an optimistic perspective that this will continue into the digital future.

Chayko, M. (2018). Superconnected: The Internet, digital media, and techno-social life. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Posted on October 8, 2020, in Social Media. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Thank you for making the connection to the grocery store pickup. Like many, I didn’t start this practice until COVID and appreciate the “accept substitutions” option the WalMart app has, although I mainly use it to say I won’t accept them because I often have specific things I need. It’s true that you might get the name brand rather than the generic, but I’m not sure how much the company would lose. I will ask friends who work there but it does remind me of the term “breakage” from Breaking Bad.

  2. Nathan Baughman

    You bring up a very interesting phenomena that’s developing with consumer culture, online banking and grocery store pickups being great examples. Food delivery apps such as Eatstreet also come to mind, which minimize the potential hassle of going into a restaurant, waiting for a seat, ordering from a menu, and so on (which isn’t a common pastime right now obviously). Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the experience of going to a restaurant with people I enjoy being with, but sometimes it’s just easier to order something from the app and stay at home. Even for restaurants that provide delivery, I feel more inclined to use Eatstreet from a usability standpoint. I wonder why many people are more inclined to use types of self-service utilities, although my guess would be it has something to do with feeling in control, or perhaps the “speedier” element that is advertised (which isn’t always the case, like with your self checkout example).

  3. Rebecca,

    Interesting post! This is a topic that I have also discussed in previous courses such as Sustainability Design. As the digital world becomes more prominent in our lives, we have started to transition to a product to service kind of thinking. The Netflix example you gave is a great example of this. In the past, the product would be the movie that you want to watch. You would have to travel to a store that sells or rent out the video to watch it. Now with Netflix, they have negated that and have given you what you actually want. It is not the disc (for the most part) that people want, but the film. Moving to a service like business is a trend that seems to have been reinforced since Covid 19. It seems like we can expect to see more of this, for better or worse, in the foreseeable future.

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