The Decline and Fall of Independent Urban Brick-and-Mortar Consumption Sites

I recently blogged about the decline, at least in part because of the explosion in  digital consumption, of brick-and-mortar consumption sites such as shopping malls and various chain stores. However, a recent editorial in the New York Times (“No Shop Around the Corner”, November 20, 2017, p. A22) made it clear that I had failed to mention the decline of small, independent, urban, brick-and-mortar consumption sites. As a native New Yorker, I had noticed that decline several years ago when I stayed in midtown Manhattan. I went in search of the kind of local, “greasy spoon”, restaurants I had grown up with. I quickly discovered that they were nowhere to be found, at least in the midtown area in which I searched. Instead, what I did find were a number of outlets of various fast food chains.

The Times article focused on the “scourge” of store closings in New York City, mostly in Manhattan. While some those stores remain closed, others have been replaced by the outlets of national chains. Both alternatives adversely affect the distinctive nature and quality of life in New York and other large cities. Empty storefronts with large “For Rent” or “For Sale” signs cast a pall over the city (just as they do in shopping malls). Storefronts that become chain stores have a different kind of deleterious effect. Instead of a local shop, consumers are faced with a choice among the same kinds of chain stores found in many other parts of the United States, and increasingly elsewhere in the world. This has a homogenizing effect everywhere. The quite unique Manhattan of my youth is largely gone making it increasingly difficult to differentiate New York from other U.S. cities and even from the remaining shopping malls. The owners of the real estate on which Manhattan’s local shops are built are, at least in some cases, charging exorbitant rents that tend to force out small independent shop owners. The result is vacant shops. The landlords hope that a national chain (e.g. Sephora) that is able to afford the rent (or even to pay more), will open in those vacated locations.

Also worth mentioning in this context is the transformation the sleazy Times Square and 42nd Street of my youth, an era and area that is currently being fictionalized in HBO’s “The Deuce”. Forty-second street between Seventh and Eighth Avenue has been transformed into a squeaky clean, Disney-like theme park with, among other things, a Disney theatre, a large McDonald’s, an Applebees, AMC and Regal multiplex movie theaters, and one of the Hilton’s hotel chain, with a Westin hotel just north of 42nd street. In other words, 42nd street is no longer sleazy, but it is also no longer distinctive. It now encompasses a similar mix of businesses to those found in many other locales.

Advertisements

Customer Service or Disservice?

Consumer Reports (September, 2014) offered a revealing analysis of the accelerating trend toward customer self-service, or one aspect of what, in my terms, is “prosumption as consumption”. Customers who engage in self-service are, by definition, producing as they consume. To its credit, Consumer Reports makes no bones about why self-service has been embraced so enthusiastically. The reason? “To save money”. For example, if customers themselves place an online order, the cost to the company is pennies, while ordering from a live agent could cost between $2 and $10. In most cases, the corporations involved do not pass the savings on to customers in the form of lower prices. When multiplied by thousands, if not millions, of transactions, such savings mean much greater corporate profits. While such cost savings and profits have long been possible, they have been greatly increased in recent years by new digital technologies and by consumers who are not only familiar with them, but greatly prefer using them to interacting with paid employees.
Why do consumers do this work without pay or economic gain of any kind? Among the reasons offered by Consumer Reports are consumers’ feelings of empowerment, the ability to handle transactions more quickly, and the possibility of avoiding contact with employees who are increasingly likely to be less than stellar in their work. In fact, because corporations much prefer self-service customers, they are likely to hire fewer workers of lesser ability, to offer little training, and to accept marginal performance of the job. While many customers are cognizant of the incapacities of service workers, they generally seem unaware of many of the costs of self-service such as the loss of human contact, the paid jobs that are lost because they are willing to work for no pay, and the dehumanization of their relationships with corporations.
Because of the increasing acceptance of self-service by consumers, some corporations have taken the outrageous step- with nary a peep from consumers- of charging them fees for handling tasks the corporations used to perform without charge. Among the examples are airlines charging customers $50 for a paper ticket, $25 for having the audacity to make a reservation by phone, $20 for asking for a receipt for an e-ticket, and a $10 fee for having a boarding pass printed out by an agent. Fees such as these are likely to increase in price and to proliferate in number and variety in the coming years thereby further increasing the costs to consumers and profits for the companies.
Profit-making organizations have discovered that they can increase their profits by cutting personnel costs and by exploiting consumers to an ever-greater degree. There are many more customers than employees to exploit, they accept their exploitation meekly and, indeed, they often embrace it eagerly. This system greatly reduces the possibility of class consciousness among the declining number of employees who are ever-more fearful of losing their jobs. Worse, the system can operate without fear of the development of class consciousness among consumers who are too diverse and self-interested to think of themselves as a class, to become a class, and to act as a class. As much as one might like to hear it, we are not likely to hear consumers utter the clarion call- “Consumers of the world unite, you’ve nothing to lose but your iPad”.

MOOCs and the McDonaldization of Education

Blog

George Ritzer, Introduction to Sociology. Sage, 2013.

Chapter 16, Pages 666-667

MOOCs and the McDonaldization of Education

                It will be difficult, if not impossible, to avoid McDonaldization on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). In fact, we can expect a far higher level of McDonaldization on MOOCs than in a variety of traditional educational settings that are, themselves, increasingly highly McDonaldized. Why?

For one thing, while it is possible to invent each MOOC class anew every semester, there will be a strong tendency to develop a script that can be reused, perhaps modified slightly, each year. To provide predictability in the evaluation of students, detailed “rubrics”, or standardized scoring systems, will be created, provided to students, and used to evaluate them. The more standardized and detailed the rubric, the less room for unpredictability, for creativity, on the part of both students and teachers. MOOCs will tend to be prepackaged systems with a series of short segments (often no more 8-12 minutes of lecture), embedded questions, and immediate (albeit automatic) feedback. In addition, as MOOC classes evolve, they are going to require higher and higher production values to rival those in the movies, TV or Internet performances of one kind or another. Once corporations invest serious amounts of money in techniques to improve the quality of MOOCs, there will be a strong interest in using those courses over and over in order to maximize the return on investment. Furthermore, MOOC classes are likely to be videotaped, or otherwise recorded, so that each class can be repeated semester after semester. Even if this were to be resisted at the major universities (e.g., Stanford) and by the academic stars most likely, at least at the present, to teach these classes, the classes would still be taped so that they could be used, probably for a charge, at lesser colleges and universities. This would be highly predictable with each academic setting that uses the prerecorded classes getting exactly the same content. While some interactive elements could be added to any prerecorded class, it would not even have the limited spontaneity of live MOOC classes.

The efficiency of many McDonaldized systems, including MOOCs, is heightened by substituting non-human for human technology. In the case of MOOCs, this is especially clear in the need to use computer-graded exams rather than more subjective essay exams graded by instructors. Efficiency is also increased in McDonaldized systems by “putting customers to work” rather than having the work done by paid employees (Ritzer, 2013). Obviously, it is more efficient from the point of view of workers, and cheaper from the perspective of the system that employs them, to have unpaid customers do such work. In the case of education in general, and MOOCs especially, there is a strong tendency to have the “customers” in the educational system, the students, do work performed by teachers in other contexts. For example, it is impossible for instructors to respond to thousands of online comments and questions. Instead, through the use of “crowd-sourcing”, students may be allowed to vote up or down on each question and comment. Based on student voting, instructors can focus on those issues that are considered important by the crowd; rather than the instructor, the class does the work of deciding what’s important (Lewin, 2012).  After the video presentation of a lecture, much of the educational process is left to the students either on their own or through in-person or online groups and other forms of interaction. The best example of this is the grading process. In classes of 100,000 students, or more, instructors, no matter how many assistants they might have, are not going to be able to do the grading. Thus, much of the grading is left up to the students themselves. Each student’s exam or paper might be read by, say, five other students with the student’s grade being the average of the five evaluations.

MOOCs tend to limit, if not eliminate, the processes that might serve to make education less McDonaldized. In his work on British education, Wilkinson (2010) argues, following up on some of my ideas (Ritzer, 2010), that the way to do this is to focus on the everyday, face-to-face, activities of teaching rather than developing large-scale systems- like MOOCs- to create a meaningful educational experience. As Wilkinson (2010: 157) puts it, the answer lies in finding ways of ”making ‘excellence’ enjoyable, engaging and rewarding for both children and education workers”. In my view, solution lies in focusing on “everyday activities of education making them not only the center of concern but where the true spectacle of education- excellent teachers finding new and exciting ways to educate students- is to be found” (Ritzer, 2010: 149). The problem with MOOCs from this perspective is that they move in exactly the opposite- and wrong- direction in focusing on creating a new system of education rather than working within the traditional system of everyday face-to-face education where excellent teachers engage with students in collectively finding what works for a specific issue at any given moment. MOOCs lack that direct contact and when classes are prerecorded there is little or no possibility for creative mutual engagement between teacher and student.

References

Lewin, Tamar. “College of the Future Could Be Come One, Come All”. New York Times November 19, 2012.

Ritzer, George. The McDonaldization of Society 7th, 20th Anniversary Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2013.

Ritzer, George, ed. McDonaldization: The Reader, 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2013.

Wilkinson, Gary. “McSchools for McWorld? Mediating Global Pressures With a McDonaldizing Education Policy Response.” In George Ritzer, ed. McDonaldization: The Reader, 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2013: 149-157.