From Silence, Wisdom, Part 2: Service-Based Economies

Last updated on May 12, 2020

When I posted the previous entry in this series connected conspiracy theories with grief and denial, a major part of the action being taken in retaliation against isolation was for access to service industries. The way our current retail and service model, though, presents a massive problem: in short, they make pathogen control fucking ridiculous. Yes, “retail” and “service” are usually considered two completely separate models, but thanks to Piggly Wiggly, pretty much all retail is predominantly service-based on the level with waitstaff and service-only workers.

But, it was not always this way. Once upon a time, clerks did all the shopping for customers. People showed up at the shop with their lists, and the orders were filled by staff. This change that first appeared in the Piggly Wiggly in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1916 helped to reduce costs for the consumer and ushered in the age of hardcore branding and advertising/marketing, now that customers were making their own choices. That, of course, has catapulted multiple industries into multi-billion-dollar shenanigans and created the staunch underpinnings of an intensely capitalistic model.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic is shining some lights on a myriad of ways that our “tried-and-true” ways of doing things are inherently flawed. The fact that retail store owners are some of the wealthiest people in the world puts the lie to the idea that businesses can’t operate without keeping their prices super-low and paying their workers even less.

Successfully non-communicable business owners are going to have to rein in that unfettered greed and restructure their models to deliver their products safely and still keep things affordable. The good news is that we’re already more than halfway there with modern technology making everything remote and touchless. We just have to go a few extra steps.

Pivot the entire retail shopping experience

First, redesign the floor of stores – large and small – to isolate the customers from the merchandise and, in most cases, from the clerks and cashiers. Arrange shelves in logical order (instead of impulse-shop order) with detailed indices. Make sure the shelves are far enough apart that pickers can work around each other without coming into contact with each other. If all points along the logistics line update their sanitation, though, it won’t be a huge deal.

Window shopping can (and often is) mostly only be done online. Fill all orders through apps, either mobile or using an in-store interface (that is aggressively sanitized after every use). A new metric for the quality of a store can be determined by how well their pickers choose the correct merchandise. The cashiers are tasked with verifying the order, arranging payment (if it hasn’t been done already), and resolving any issues with an order.

Pickers wear full PPE when working with merchandise, including changing gloves regularly, wearing full body covers, and wearing masks. They load orders into carts or cartons for the cashiers to check.

Pre-picked lists can be arranged by last name or order number. These should be near the front of the store where cashiers can readily retrieve them. Many stores should have wheeled carts on hand to assist in this part, or, in the case of grocery stores, use the existing carts. If the merchandise doesn’t really lend itself to that sort of delivery, shelves are perfect.

This type of service model allows stores to control the flow of customers much more effectively, and it even still allows for the “up-sell” events and moments that so many marketing faces rely on. Adverts in person and in apps makes product suggestions even easier. Concierge-type service would become a new upscale for nearly any store, providing “elite” service with more convenience and safe distancing for the customer.

The resistance, of course, is that it will cost minor short term inconvenience and maybe a little money. It will definitely require expanding the workforce and re-training staff to support the new model, but it will also provide more types of staff positions. Businesses will have to decide if they’d rather hire in a conscientious way or have to replace deceased or disabled workers – or go out of business altogether as the economic structure they’re based on crumbles. Yes, in the end, the overall profit margins are not going to serve the upper echelon of billionaire stockholders the way it has in the past, but, from a social and economic health perspective, that’s not a bad thing.

Food is still love, and service is a love language

Restaurants are a mixed bag when it comes to revolutionizing how they work because the entire industry is riddled with inherent toxicity. And yet, social events and sharing meals together is a cornerstone of peace and cohesion in any community.

The biggest challenge to the dine-in experience is that people can’t eat while they’re wearing masks. And that gatherings of more than ten people makes pathogen control nearly impossible. A fairly clever alternative has been to install “sanitize-able isolation partitions” – i.e. shower curtains. It’s really kind of brilliant when you think about it, though it does still require the restaurants lose some of their floor space to accommodate space that’s still required. Going a step further and building out new restaurants with primarily closed seating instead of open is the even smarter method.

This creates phenomenal opportunities for many construction and renovation crews out there, not to mention the chance to redesign the entire industry. Nearly everything about the way we’ve designed restaurants and shared dining spaces has to be reconsidered. I staunchly believe – and am fully willing to demonstrate – that it is possible to design a pathogen-resistant dining experience without presenting an austere or sterile environment. It simply requires a dedication to treating your people well and not skimping on the important parts.

The problem, of course, is that the profit margins on restaurants are notorious crap-tastic, and one of the first and biggest problems that has to be solved is getting rid of gratuity-based pay. Maybe the connection doesn’t seem obvious, so I’ll spell it out: Someone who’s entire financial existence is tied to essentially the “kindness of strangers” is massively in danger of starvation when access to those strangers has to be limited by necessity. Plus, waitstaff will be taking on additional responsibilities in terms of sanitation and public protections, so an increase from a couple of bucks an hour to a reasonable and decent living wage is only fair.

Remember that employees are only as safe as they can afford to be. If you don’t pay your employees enough to keep stocked with PPE – or you don’t provide that PPE yourself – then you are still part of the problem, not the solution.

Clubs, bars, and pubs are a different problem.

The biggest challenge to controlling a pandemic isn’t fixing how people get their necessities, though, or even how they get fed: it’s how they spend their leisure and socialize. And humans are very, very social creatures, which means that this will always be the vector that will take the most to control.

I’ve thought about this a number of different ways, and the fact is, I think that the revolution to safe party-style socializing is going to happen through the fashion industry. Making masks oh-so-vogue and inventing masks and clothing that are “looking outfits” and not “mashin’-up-against outfits” not only provides impetus to encourage social distancing, it provides great chances to finally get some proper sci-fi fashion out there.

Additionally, it’s going to mean changing how bars are run – operating more on text- and app-delivered orders, restricting face-to-face exchanges, and maybe even redesigning how entire clubs are operating at all. Waitstaff will be much more relied upon for drink delivery, and loud music – though kind of the key feature for most clubs these days – will have to be turned down because requiring people to be so effin’ close to communicate is grossly irresponsible.

The imagination runs wild with options, though: new technology that allows clubs to have location- or network-specific communications; clubs honeycombed with clear rooms for anywhere from two to eight people; headphone clubs where everyone brings their own WiFi or Bluetooth headsets, or else gets to purchase them there. (More on this later, I have some ideas I have to fine-tune here.)

The point is, yes, things have to change. NO, it can’t go back to the way it was before, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. If we do this right, we’re not only going to protect ourselves during this ongoing pandemic (and the future ones), we’re going to create a better, brighter future for everyone from the ground up.

Dawn Written by:

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