The service-paradox - on self-service and customer-retention ~ Sounds + Food 'n' Retail

skitched-20080130-112709.jpgEvery now and again, you come across something that changes the colour of your perception, that allows you to see the world in different ways. One such moment happened after reading a chapter in the IKEA-book, I wrote about before (1 & 2), on how the customer is deeply involved in the logistical process and the effects and cause of it.

As you may, or may not know, when you shop at IKEA, you generally go into the store, choose the furniture you want, pick up the already-boxed version of that item, put it in a cart, pay, drive home, and assemble it with some tools that are in the box. All-together, the customer at IKEA does 80% of the work related to sales.

I had read, in my bachelor, I think, that the reason that IKEA introduced this system was because of when it first opened its store, there was such a mass of people that their staff couldn't handle it, and that they then just decided to let the mob do all that stuff. I thought that the reason that system remained was cost-saving; I mean, how cheap is that to let customers do all that work for themselves, right? Well, that's definitely a reason, but only part of the story.

The other part is the effect it had on customers. Because you always ask yourself, why would someone go through that, when they can just pay the store a little extra for the transport and the assembly? And that's where it gets interesting.

To start, IKEA, even though it offers low-cost goods, is well-positioned for the middle-class market. The stores are outside the city, and pretty much all their customers have cars, which they can use to transport the furniture back home. I'm not 100% sure if this was by design or a consequence of other factors. But at the very least, the conditions for making the customer part of the logistics process are in place. Still, you kind of wonder. Aren't these exactly the people that could afford a little extra service?

The explanation is culture. Western culture, you could argue, has seen a shift towards individualism. People are over-informed, over-serviced, over-indulged. Sales-clerks and waiters can't wait to throw themselves at you and ask you if you're happy, if you want another…, and another, and another. It's exhausting, both for the store and for the clients.

In comes this place, which tells you, very Scandinavian, here… go do it yourself. Like a party, where you can mix your own cocktails. Where you control what goes in and what comes out. And most of all, where you get the feeling that you are part of a productive ecosystem. It's the good kind of stress.

The book quotes some sociologists, Robert Jungk and Ivan Illich, according to whom, a society which receives too many services, where every screw has a handyman, is a broken society. Services, they say, destroy activities. For every small chore, you can call an expert and let them do work that you actually do yourself. On a larger scale, services destroy the entrepreneurial drive. Also Thomas Düllo, according to whom, we live in a world of indirectness, and because of this, it's very exciting to be asked to do something. A French student was also quoted, calling IKEA: "Lego for Adults."

And there are definitely signs that suggest that society wants to move into another direction: open source, Wikipedia, Make-magazine, do-it-yourself, self-help, etc. Probably even blogging. A collection of niches to be sure, but growing ones.

Ever since reading that chapter, I sit in restaurants, stores, etc. and wonder how this principle can be worked into their or other businesses. For instance, is the take-away coffee part of it, or McDonalds' policy of throw-it-away-yourself, or Amazon. All of these "features" cause both a downward-shift in the bottom-line of "service" businesses, but they also remove the "service." And these businesses are unarguably booming too.

But I also wonder which services can be removed, and which shouldn't. More on that when I have the answer. Or perhaps you have it yourself? Let me know in the comments.

The picture is courtesy of


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