USA caught in 1950s timewarp

Rhys David finds there is something re-assuring, though quite unexpected, about the service customers receive in America

When, it might be asked, did the Americans fall so far behind us in Britain? We are not talking about technological expertise, economic growth, population, or any of the many other areas in which they are still ahead. No, perhaps rather surprisingly, the Americans appear instead to have much to learn from us about serving customers in what might be considered the most efficient ways.

American politeness when dealing with customers is, of course, legendary, even if the conventional greetings “How are you today” and “Have a Good Day” can be a bit tiresome to European ears after a while. It is in the mechanics of modern service that the US in some ways seems to lag.

Take, for instance, credit card purchases. Chip and Pin as far as I could see from a recent trip to the north-eastern states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, has yet to arrive in the US. Instead, all credit or debit card purchases still need signatures. No big deal perhaps but much more open to fraud than the now widespread European system.

Indeed, in Europe, as far as purchases for small amounts are concerned – such as a newspaper or bar of chocolate – we have gone beyond Chip and Pin. Terminals are now appearing at various outlets which simply require you to wave your card and the cost of the item will be deducted from your bank account. Most supermarkets, too, and now WH Smith, as well, have introduced terminals where customers are encouraged to swipe their own goods before paying at a machine by card.

That other great boon of recent years – cashback – also seems to be unknown in the US. Here customers are regularly asked at supermarkets and other big outlets if they want to add cash to their bills, not simply as a matter of convenience for the customer but because the outlet gains, too. Giving money back to customers and taking it out of their bank accounts instead of keeping it in the till means less cash on the premises, less temptation and reward for thieves, and fewer costly visits from armoured cash collection vans and Robocop-style security men.

There is another not very consumer friendly practice that seems peculiarly American – upfront charges for petrol. Instead of as in Britain filling up and paying at the cash desk (or at some garages through a credit card terminal at the pump), some US filling stations require you to pay in advance. You have to estimate the petrol you will need – say $40 worth – and go into the office and pay. The pump is then set to deliver that amount. If you have over-estimated your needs, you have to go back to get your change.

Clearly, for better or worse the surveillance society is not as advanced in the US. In Britain all big filling stations now have an office and mini-supermarket set deliberately at right angles to the pumps so that everyone can be watched and usually filmed, making “driveaways” hard to achieve without eventually being caught.

The reason for some of these apparent inefficiencies is perhaps surprising. Although the US has giant nationwide retail outlets, such as Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Gap, Foot Locker, Home Depot and many others, in many respects the UK is much more rationalised, standardised, and homogenised as far as its retailing is concerned. Walk down the High Streets of even a medium sized UK town and you will be confronted with the same stores – WH Smith, Boots, Clinton Cards, Greggs, Poundland, and their like. You will also see the same five banks – HSBC, Lloyds TSB, Barclays and RBS/NatWest, and Santander plus a few of the remaining building societies.

In the US even the smallest communities still tend to have their own banks – such as the Bank of Wood’s Hole in Massachusetts – even if they are affiliated to other bigger groups. And in many of the retail sectors that have long since passed largely into the hands of national chains in Britain, such as greeting cards, bakery goods or photographic supplies, Mom & Pop or family businesses, or small or regional chains survive. The concentration in our retailing that has resulted, for better or worse, in the enthusiastic adoption of new technologies is absent outside the biggest US malls and has surprisingly, therefore, delayed their introduction.

There are other areas, too, however, where the relentless cost-cutting of the British service sector, resulting usually in dramatic cutbacks in the number of people employed to cater for the public, are apparent. In the UK it is routine now for London commuters after buying tickets from a machine and passing through automatic ticket barriers to be taken into work and back in 12 coach trains capable of accommodating more than 1,000 passengers and staffed by just one person – the driver.

On the Long Island Rail Road – a New York equivalent to one of London’s suburban train companies – automatic ticket machines have indeed appeared. On the other hand, a smartly uniformed ticket collector straight out of a Hitchcock era film still walks up and own the carriage and performs the ritual of inspecting and clipping tickets and posting them in a special holder next to your seat.

The US telephone service also comes as a surprise. They may well have faster broadband speeds than the UK but costs have not been driven down to nearly the same extent. Although calling structures are complicated in the UK, we are used to a modest local call charge and a somewhat higher long distance cost. Ask anyone in the US if you can use their phone to call out of state and they are likely to hesitate as such calls carry a significant premium over those that are more local.

The US postal system, loss-making like its UK counterpart, also seems to British eyes decidedly old-fashioned. Many people in the US, even in relatively sizeable communities, collect their mail, and the walls of post offices in these areas are lined with P.O. boxes for the customer to access. The long-standing drive in Britain to provide post office services in other retail outlets, such as supermarkets, or even chemists and estate agents, and the closure of most of the former Crown offices, appears not to have occurred in the US. As a result US post offices retain a rather re-assuringly official 1950s appearance, unlike their rather jumbled UK counterparts where it is necessary to trail past soft drinks, newspapers, greetings cards and other consumer items to reach the stamps.

This pleasantly antique appearance is matched by a significantly less precise post code system. In Britain the six letter and digit post code identifies no more than a handful of properties. By contrast the five digit US zip code (even though it does have largely unused extensions) identifies whole towns.

The irony of course is that most of the technological breakthroughs that have made Britain an increasingly automated society, where we are constantly being driven to do our banking over the internet, to renew our car tax our television licence online, to find and pay for our grocery items and even newspapers without any human intervention and where even the transport system has lost most of its front line staff, have come from the big IT companies and consultancies in the US.

As the machine in WH Smith booms out across the shop for the hundredth time that day, thanking you for using the Fast Lane – its new customer operated bar code reader and payment system – memories of B&H, an amazing Hasidic Jewish photographic, video equipment, home cinema, television and computer store in Manhattan come to mind.

There staff greet you at every turn, and direct you to the product display you require. You are then directed to a counter manned by a number of seated individuals who take your details and these and the product are dispatched on to another desk where payment is made and a receipt is issued. You must then take the receipt to yet another counter some way away where your purchase – in my case two AA batteries – is handed to you. Nevertheless, the business seems to survive and prosper.

No doubt many of the developments which we have pioneered will spread back to the USA, which in the end is likely to be as driven by the need to keep cutting costs as we are. Yet the Americans currently appear to have a better balance between automation and service than we are managing to achieve and we seem to be tipping further and further away from a service culture every year. It would be a great pity if the American way – and in particular the human interaction at which they are so good – was lost as more technology drives in.

Rhys David is a trustee of the IWA. He writes on economic and business affairs.

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