When getting gas today I drove past three other gas stations to get to my preferred gas station. Do I like this place because of the convenience store, the level of service or even the rewards I get for filling up there? The biggest reason why I fuel up where I do is because they were one of the first to get the pumps that allow you to pay with your credit card at the pump. I don’t want to deal with gas station staff.

When I go to Walmart, I just about always go through the self checkouts. I don’t often buy more than a few items at a time, so I find it easier to just go through the self serve.

At Subway today, I poured my own pop into my cup. I paid $1.89 for a medium drink that I poured myself, then I got my own lid and straw. To top it all off, there was a giant “No Refills” sign.

I’m 27 years old. I’m hardly an old geezer, even though I might feel like it when discussing things from my childhood with people 10 years my junior. I can remember the days of people pumping gas. I can remember going into a Subway for the first time and laughing at the concept of pouring my own drink. My attitude was “I just paid 6 bucks for a sandwich and now I have to get my own pop?” I actually boycotted Subway for a short time after that. I only went back because a cute girl asked me to go for lunch there.

In about 10 years we’ve gone from expecting people to wait on us hand and foot to doing their work for them… and actually enjoying it. Remember when you’d take your car to the service station and the kid working there would fill it up, wash your windshield and check your oil for you?

I don’t want to turn into a crotchety old man on you guys. I’m not going to shake my fist at those damn teenagers on my lawn and pine for the good ol’ days, preferably while sitting in my rocking chair on the porch. I’ll leave that up to Frugal Dad. What I do want to talk about is not only how we’ve let retailers off the hook, but how we enjoy it so much more to serve ourselves.

In my town, there’s only one full service gas station left. It does fairly well, in fact it might even be the busiest gas station in town. One doesn’t even have to pay a premium for gas to get it pumped; this gas station is one of the most aggressive in town with their price at the pumps. This station does pump your gas for you, but you still have to go inside and pay and they just don’t bother to check your oil or clean your windshield. You’re really not gaining much over their competitors in terms of service.

It’s the same thing with going to Wal-Mart. I don’t want to stereotype all Wal-Mart employees, but when was the last time you got service worth talking about at Wal-Mart? Whenever I go through the cashiers there, I get a half hearted grunt for a greeting, then I get asked for my cash, then I leave. Some do attempt in small talk, but it usually serves to irritate me. This is why I choose the self checkouts.

That begs the question- Am I happy to serve myself, or am I doing it because the alternative is worse? Gas stations and big retailers can hardly afford to hire great staff, so they just grab who’s left. Everybody knows this, which is why nobody goes into Wal-Mart with the expectation of being wowed with the service. Do I want to serve myself because I know it’ll lead to less frustrations?  And if that’s the case, why do we keep rewarding retailers for cutting back on service?

There’s two reasons why we tolerate serving ourselves. The first one is because we have such a low expectation of retail staff that we know serving ourselves is simpler, faster and less stressful. The other reason is because, subconsciously, we associate low prices with a lack of service. While this may have been true at the beginning of the self serve movement, it isn’t now. Yet we identify the two things together and are happy to oblige to save a buck. Retailers have done a nice job of figuring this out.

Oh, and if you’re a retailer or service station trying to get ahead by giving better service, you can’t just be slightly better than the competition. If Wal-Mart’s service is a 5 out of 10, yours better be a 9. Anything less and people just won’t notice.

Tell everyone, yo!