Best of the Best: A Novel Idea

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Cathy Best

Cathy Best

By Cathy Best, Columnist

What’s happened to the service industry? Somehow we’ve managed to accept self-service as common practice. It snuck up on us disguised as a novelty.

Isn’t it novel to stand in the rain and pump our expensive gas, and novel to be stranded in a dressing room with the wrong size, and novel to set our table at the cafe and serve our selves at the salad bar?

It has gotten to such a ridiculous point that people actually pay to cook their own steak at the steak house. Self-service, regardless of how it’s disguised, is not about novelty.

Many companies, where service is an integral part of the business, have taken the path of eliminating training employees the standards of good service, or have eliminated service positions all together, for profit’s sake.

Who profits and does the bottom line fill up with $ signs? Let’s break it down. In 1947 the first self-service gas station opened in Los Angeles.

Believe it or not New Jersey and Oregon have a ban on self-service gas stations that have been in place since 1949 and 1950 respectively. “Both states site safety and jobs as reasons to retain the ban.”

Somebody, acting on his or her A- game realized self-service wasn’t such a novel idea. I remember when you could pull up to the station and have your windshield washed, oil checked, tires kicked, and gas pumped.

It wasn’t but a few years ago you could still get full-service on Main Street in Madison. Full-service meant full-service; it’s where you went to get the bugs out from under the hood, tires balanced and wheels aligned.

Think about the number of cars in America and the number of jobs lost. Staggering. If your sputtering and spewing car can make it to the mall don’t expect the singular salesperson (cash register attendant), covering five departments, to check on you in the dressing room and swap out sizes.

Even on a Wednesday morning, when the mall is dead, you have to dress each time you need to swap a size and head back out into the abyss to find what you need.

Have you noticed the return lines in department stores often spill out on the sidewalk? Why? Consumers decided to manage self-service by using their dressing rooms at home or shopping in smaller boutiques where full-service is more prevalent.

It may, or may not, cost more to shop in smaller businesses but at least there’s someone to help you find what you need, and you’ll buy it. The added bonus: you don’t have to drive to the dressing room.

Tackling restaurant service could take me three columns; culling it down to specifics is hard. What really got me zoned in on the service tangent to start with was breakfast out one frosty morning in the frozen tundra.

Richard and I entered the restaurant and the waitress motioned, from across the room, to seat ourselves. As we settled in she made a high speed pass by the table slinging silverware and wadded napkins, for us to grab on the fly and arrange, as she barked out “coffee?”

She continued her assault on the table by sloshing coffee everywhere but in the cup. Did she return to wipe the table? No. We used our wadded napkins-the only two we would get. Did she get a hefty tip? Did she even realize that was possible? Think of revenue lost and wages diminished due to unskilled service employees or no service at all; customers will not return. Is self-service really a better economic choice, to pad a company’s bottom line? If profits, higher wages, and shorter unemployment lines are important for the economy, the old-school business slogan “Service is our first consideration” is a novel idea.

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