One of the unspoken reasons Americans flock to online shopping is the diminishing quality of customer service. It’s not just for lower prices and convenience. It’s getting more and more difficult to experience civility and great service when we go out, so we are staying home more and having purchases brought to us.
While most of us enjoy these conveniences of a tech economy, there is a real potential these trends will continue to erode the social fabric of America. Does Uber, Grubhub, or Amazon ultimately promote fairness, balance, and equality in the economy? Is Facebook making money off of us not seeing each other face to face?
Several years ago, I was in Philadelphia to visit a Brown’s Super Store, a fourth generation grocer who purposely goes into impoverished communities and food deserts. They hire from the community, establishing a social contract with the people that live around the store. The profit margins for the store are lower than other stores but they make a profit and the real returns are sustainable. The stores offer foods specific to the diversity of the communities, credit union services, and healthcare clinics. Compare that with businesses like Walmart, now the largest employer across the U.S. It is no coincidence that the high level of economic inequality we experience now has happened at the same time as the rise of Walmart with their low median wages. Job security, social safety nets, and thousands of local businesses all faded away with the predatory tactics of Walmart and the ascent of online technology.
It is delusional to think all of us spending more time in our homes is great for the community. If we continue to view our transactions as just a means to an end, we will have no more diversity of places left for the human experience and connection with strangers. Businesses will continue to respond by automating even more services and using fewer people. We have become okay with this to the point that when we do venture out most of our exchanges are with faces and names we don’t remember. I’ve noticed it with my mail service. After our long-time carrier Chuck retired, we’ve had a series of carriers, I suspect because there are more technology and less people investments occurring.
So, we are caught in a Catch-22. Whether online giants like Amazon continue to reinvest profits in local face time services such as Whole Foods or experiments with more automated self-checkout, remains to be seen. Large employers like Costco and Trader Joe’s still get it, offering wages and benefits to live by and receiving some of the highest employee satisfaction marks in the nation. Chick-fil-A and Publix are soaring because of exceptional customer service and consistency. Sears, Kmart, Toys “R” Us, and Winn-Dixie; a little more foresight, employee investment, and customer service training, and we might still have them.
Customer expectations for instant gratification have increased, but it has become dangerous to the sustainability of our own local economies. Online-based businesses and apps will meet our needs, but at what cost? We the customers need to stop abandoning neighbors and their jobs for shiny new things, self-checkout lines, and cheaper prices. Businesses need to train more in customer service and promote fairness and equality. If we treat people like faceless cogs, both the customer and the employee, it won’t be long before we are all at the mercy of a few billionaires and a million robots. We have to do better.
Daniel Parker is an author, educator, and public servant. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org