360 Degrees

360 Degrees

In the beginning, department stores had their own currencies and provided banking services to the community.  Store employees lived in houses owned by the company and paid rent to them. They were paid in store credits, so they could purchase the goods they needed.

At some point in our society’s evolution stores and banks became separate entities, but most of the larger stores had their own financing departments. Even that drifted further apart though as Mastercard became dominant in that sector. The retail industry then started to diminish with the advent of online shopping which became much more convenient and reliable. Meanwhile, the separate bank and credit card companies flourished.

As bricks and mortar stores continued to decline, people turned even more to online shopping. Instead of just speciality items (which played a role in the death of record and electronic stores), or the children’s area (which helped destroy stores such as Toys R US), they became very convenient for purchasing household products, toiletries, and bath products. This negatively impacted the midrange and bargain stores, like Zellers and Sears.

List of Stores Closing in 2017

Amazon could force 400 mall stores to close up shop

All of this drove people to shop online even more, since traveling to a bricks and mortar store became no longer convenient, and with less selection than online stores. Which caused companies like Amazon and Walmart to grow even stronger online.

Two companies with different paths.

Amazon was originally a bookstore, kind of like Chapters or Coles. Then they created an online presence and they kept growing it. It wasn’t just another option for purchasing, it quickly became a desirable option, with sellers from all over the world selling every type of product imaginable. The majority of the products are backed by Amazon, so easy returns meant no risk to consumers.

Free shipping for everyone on 100M+ items? Amazon’s doing it at $25

When you reach the point that you’re ordering from Amazon on a regular basis, at some point you realize it makes sense to pay to be a Prime member. Prime members get their orders delivered usually within 1 to 2 days. Plus they get a year of online television (sort of like a cheap Netflix).

Walmart, on the other hand, has always been a general goods store, with everything from tires to clothing and healthcare, to household products and eventually to even food products. At some point though, they probably realized the threat Amazon presented to their business, and they quickly created an online presence. They are definitely still a bit behind Amazon.

Walmart’s latest experiment: Higher prices online than in stores

And now Amazon (a store) wants to be your bank.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.


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Where Did Everyone Go?


I think it started with Automated Teller Machines (ATM). TD Bank introduced us to the Green Machine and we fell in love. No longer did we have to wait in line to deposit our pay-cheques or withdraw money. Convenience was king. Soon all the other banks followed suit.

Then came the self-checkouts, also known as SACAT machines (semi-attended customer-activated terminals). They started popping up everywhere – Walmart, Home Depot, even our local libraries. They said it was for convenience. A lot of people hate the ones in the stores because they replace people’s jobs. I get it – we all need to save money and keep the cost of goods low, right? Besides they’re just minimum wage unimportant jobs, right?


Then McDonald’s, which is almost the last bastion of part-time jobs for students, put in self-service kiosks. No longer can we complain about order takers not being able to do the math and give us the right change, or forgetting to mention we don’t want pickles on our big Mac sandwich. Technology rules supreme and our orders are now perfect and everybody’s happy, right?

Have we been lulled into complacency? Into accepting a fairy tale ending to automation?

Let’s examine the dark side.

With every new technology comes an opportunity for less than honourable people to find a way to try new scams.

ATMs? We’ve all heard about the skimmers on a lot of the machines, just waiting for us to use them so they can steal our bank card information and ultimately our money.

Self-checkouts? Store thefts (aka shoplifting) have increased over 4% because of self-checkouts. According to Business Insider, it’s actually encouraging honest people to steal, sometimes intentionally (not scanning all items) or unintentionally (buying organic produce but entering the code for the non-organic one). They’re harder thefts to prosecute as well because it’s difficult to prove intent and customers can plead ignorance or blame it on an equipment malfunction. And, as fate would have it, thieves have found a way to put skimmers on the debit machines.

Here’s a funny story about the founder of self-checkouts, Howard Schneider, actually trying to buy some peppers using a self-checkout at Wal-Mart: http://www.npr.org/2016/10/20/498736760/self-checkout-could-soon-be-checking-out

It’s hard for me to argue against the self-service kiosks at McDonald’s for a few reasons. First, it actually gets the order right. Second, because I’m forced to pay with my debit/credit card, I no longer have to worry about incorrect change or the pickles on my big Mac sandwich. Finally, it’s all irrelevant to me because I never go to McDonald’s. Not my circus, not my monkey, but gosh! what about those high school students and their part-time jobs?

Even libraries have embraced self-checkouts, but in their situation, it really is about improving the customer experience and not about reducing staff or saving money – because they don’t really save money. To prevent the library’s collection materials from “walking” out the door, they use RFID (radio frequency identification). Now libraries are discussing opening staff-less branches, primarily to extend the number of hours they can afford to be open to the public. https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2017/03/20/pilot-project-to-eliminate-toronto-library-staff-part-time.html

Where will all this automation take us?

Many of us are doing most, if not all, of our banking online. Our pay-cheques are deposited automatically to our accounts, our bills are either set up to automatically be paid, or we go online and pay them. We move money around our accounts and send money wirelessly to our children for their allowances. We use online shopping sites and have our products delivered to our door, all paid for online. Yes, there are thieves hiding around every URL it seems, but we protect ourselves with complicated passwords, two-factor authentication, fingerprint identification, and bio-metric facial recognition. I only go into the bank to discuss or renew my mortgage, exchange currencies, or get a very rare bank draft when needed.

Now, Alterna Bank has announced that, as part of the digital banking revolution, they have launched Canada’s first and only end-to-end digital mortgage. It’s supposed to make it easier for us when seeking financing to purchase a new home. This new portal walks home buyers through pre-approval, decisioning, funding, even remote income verification. Supposedly it goes beyond basic credit scores and uses multiple data sources and advanced business intelligence to match up the right mortgage for each client. They’re calling it the “touch-less” experience for their consumers.

What’s missing from all of this is the human touch. The one-on-one, face-to-face experience. But is it even wanted? I want it. When supermarkets started switching to bag your own, I sought out stores that still bagged. I’m a busy person and though it sound trivial, I’m not an expert at bagging. I will gladly pay more for someone who knows how to optimize bag space and has the experience to understand what weight a bag can carry, or even how many bags I will need. It takes me 3 times as long to bag up a week’s groceries, and the entire time I feel guilty because I’m holding up other customers because my stuff is still on the belt. Let someone with experience do it please so I can be in and out as quickly as possible, so I get back to doing what I’m good at. Which is not bagging groceries; like these self-checkouts expect me to do.

Okay, that was a bit of a rant, but I feel much better now!

I don’t want a society where I don’t talk to anyone, where I don’t see anyone.  We all want and need that human interaction.  There seems to be a presumption that the answer to slow or poor customer service is to provide no customer service – automate everything. Is anyone researching the societal effects of an automated world? Not just the lack of part-time jobs for students (and often full-time workers) but also the psychological effects of not having the face-to-face interaction with another human being, which Psychology Today says reduces the risk of depression.

It’s predicted that by 2020 we’ll even have driverless cars, so our next Uber may not even have someone sitting behind the wheel.  Elon Musk, founder of the electric car (which I so badly want) and SpaceX has his own concerns about the future of AI.

I’ve embraced technology all of my life, but I think sometimes we need to stop for a bit and figure out the consequences of what we’re doing and where we’re going. Before we find ourselves in a place we never wanted to be.

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