Untold story of worker productivity: Let the consumer do it
Tuesday, September 07, 2004

On this Labor Day, I missed the laborers. As America shifts more and more to a self-checkout, self-banking, self-toll-paying, self-photo-developing economy, you can almost get through your day of errands without speaking to a real worker.

John Beale, Post-Gazette
The PG's Ann Belser prepares to wash her dog, Sidney, at Dirty Hairy's self-serve dog wash in Point Breeze on Saturday.
Click photo for larger image.
But it's not as easy as you'd think -- nor desirable, as I discovered this Labor Day weekend. Automatic banking has been around for decades, and most of us have mastered the ATMs. Some folks can zip through highway toll booths with the E-Z Pass, make airline reservations via the Internet and breeze through E-ticket airport check-in kiosks.

But not all tasks lend themselves to self-serve, and you wonder whether some increases in worker productivity come from the customer's sweat not the worker. Outsourcing may be a trend in some jobs, but in the service industries it's now become "you-sourcing," as in you-are-the-source-of-their-labor.

One of the newest self-service venues in Pittsburgh is Dirty Hairy's, a self-service dog grooming place in Point Breeze.

Dirty Hairy's owner, Andrew Jannot, said he had seen self-service dog washes out West and decided to open one here. Once Jannot helps set up customers with the system, they're on their own.

I tested the place Saturday morning with Sidney, my 2-year-old corgi. In Jannot's defense, Sidney was not the dog he was thinking of as the best-case scenario. Sidney has a coat that is not the breed standard, which means that his coat gets long as if he were a straight-haired poodle.

For $13, dogs weighing less than 30 pounds can get a wash, haircut and blow dry. It seemed like a good idea at the time. We started with brushing -- about 45 minutes -- and still he was shedding. Then we pulled out the electric clippers.

Sidney hated the clippers. Every time they came close to his forelegs he would turn and bark at them, startling me and causing me nearly to throw them across the room. He pulled, he jerked, he tried to jump off the table. Finally, I had his legs cut, his fanny shaved and his belly hair trimmed, or nearly, when Jannot offered me scissors that allowed the whole thing to go much more smoothly even if his hair was more uneven.

Most people, he said, were there to use the large raised tubs to wash their dog. That saves back strain from bending over a regular bathtub and he cleans up the mess.

Once the cutting was done, we turned to the wash. Sidney didn't mind it as much as the clippers, though it was hard to tell. As he squirmed, water from the hose hit the brick wall and cascaded onto the floor. Did I mention Jannot cleans that up?

Once he and I were sufficiently soaked, we turned to the four-horse power blow dryer. Sidney hated that more than the clippers. He barked at the hose a couple of times before finally breaking down and biting the nozzle while it was in my hand.

I wasn't the only one providing companies with free labor this weekend. After dialing in a rapid refill for allergy medication, I went to a CVS where I found Doug Schiller, 55, of Squirrel Hill processing his own pictures from his trip to New York City.

Schiller had an $88 digital camera equipped with a $35 memory card. He had put the card in the Kodak kiosk and it was displaying the photos for him to crop and then print. The only help he needed from a store clerk was the password to print the photos.

"It's done on my time, that's the downside of it," he said.

From CVS, I headed to Giant Eagle at The Waterfront in Homestead for my first attempt at a grocery store self-checkout.

I started easily. I placed a bag of grapes on the scale and pushed the button for produce, then the picture of grapes. No problem.

Then I scanned item after item: a can of lemonade, bags of tortilla chips, two gallons of milk, some cheese. It was going great until I hit the watermelon. I pushed the produce button and there was only one picture of watermelon, so I hit it. There was no way I had just placed a $7.99 watermelon on the conveyer belt.

So, I grabbed it back and hit the help button.

"Help is on the way," said the machine. Then it offered to let me keep scanning. The light above my checkout line blinked and I scanned. No one came.

I noticed the light had stopped blinking on its own. Again I hit the help button.

It said it again, "help is on the way." Help was not on the way.

A woman behind me yelled: "Call over to those two girls fixing their hair."

Help was having a bad hair day.

One of the young women came over, did something with a key or a card and typed in some buttons. Then she said the type of watermelon I had chosen was not yet in the system. Mine was $6.99. I was astonished, but it would have been too hard to reject it.

I paid with a debit card and asked for $30 cash back. It should have paid me $30 for the time it took to ring up my groceries.

My grandmother used to call her grocer. He would deliver her order and bill her later. Now, thanks to technology I load the cart, take it to the check out, unload it and check it, place it on the conveyer, bag it, load it in my car then unload it in my house where I put it away. Before I am ready to prepare a single food item I have handled the groceries seven times.

From the grocery store I drove to the gasoline station where, at the Giant Eagle Get Go, there are five steps to buying gasoline, including me messing up whether I wanted to pay outside because I thought I was telling the pump I wanted to use the discount on my Advantage Card for gasoline. So, instead of paying outside, I had to go inside.

I took the groceries home and from there I hit one of the early adopters of self-serve: the self-service car wash on Liberty Avenue in the Strip District.

In the 1976 movie "Car Wash" I don't remember anyone being covered in high pressure wax. Mostly I like the car washes in which you can sit in your car and watch the suds roll down the windows.

At this car wash the suds flew off the foaming brush as I reached for it on the wall. The pink soap hit my glasses and slid down onto my nose and upper lip. There were no cute guys dancing in tight pants as in the movie. Instead I was there, with the slight breeze blowing the pressurized soap, then wax, then water over me. My legs were caked with dirt from my car. I ran out of time during the wash and had to pay another $1.50 to get the rinse water running.

The vacuum was much better. First I unloaded two strollers, a car seat, tissues, a yoga mat, a fire extinguisher and two baseball caps. Then, for 75 cents, I speed vacuumed before it could shut off. I had just finished and was about to start touching up areas when the suction shut off. It was enough.

After a full five hours of laboring for other companies, I realized one thing.

Those companies don't pay me enough.

First published on September 7, 2004 at 12:00 am
Ann Belser can be reached at or 412-263-1699.