Thursday, May 19, 2005 | If X is history, and Y is service, and you plot an ordinary parabola, then humanity has clearly reached the apogee of Service Heaven and is hurtling down a rocket roller-coaster descent into Service Hell.
The apogee was reached, of course, with Nordstrom, whose business model was the service stations (remember when they called them “service stations”?) of the 1940s. At service stations, an attendant came out, asked how much gas you wanted, pumped the gas, checked your tires, washed your windshield, checked your oil and water, and brought you change. The tab for this was never over $5. You can still see service stations on Turner Classic Movies.
Nordstrom improved on that model and was in fact Service Heaven. I remember feeling a little “this can’t last” uneasiness in Nordstrom, and sure enough, at the peak of the Service Heaven apogee, banks introduced the ATM card. It was first presented as a “check guarantee card,” making you feel privileged and secure while the banks let you gradually get used to the idea that the ATM card made you your own teller.
When banks proved that human employees could be eliminated, along with the messy salaries and benefits, other businesses jumped on the model and Y started downhill. Slowly at first, ironically with service stations, that regressed to card-operated gas stations, and then the descent picked up speed. Overnight, it seemed, we became our own telephone receptionists and switchboards.
For a long time I assumed the phone tree was the bottom, and that Service Hell had been reached. Then just the other day I went to IKEA. It was very interesting. We walked up some stairs and then began walking through furniture groupings and displays. Our progress was along a sort of trail, well-marked, like you would follow through the great outdoors. Then we reached a stairway taking us downstairs. It was a welcome sight to me, because by then I was hot and tired and imagined we would find the trailhead, if you will, at the bottom of the stairs.
But the foot of the stairs was only the top of the peak, so to speak. At the bottom we trudged on. And on. I remembered an old movie, “Fantastic Voyage,” in which medical people, Raquel Welch among them, were miniaturized and injected into the circulatory system, from which there was no escape, of an individual whose life needed saving.
It was my situation exactly. I was trapped in a circulatory system, and my life needed saving. Raquel Welch could have run into me naked, at her movie age or her age now, and I would not have noticed. Finally we passed into a cavernous warehouse area where all the furniture and appointments and accessories had been digested into aisle upon aisle of compressed brown bundles, and at last we were extruded through checkout lines into air and sky of a sweetness I didn’t remember.
We didn’t buy anything, but we saw something we liked. A china cabinet. We shopped around and found nothing better. So we went back. We found the item and looked around for someone to do business with. In the next hour came the dawn of the real truth about IKEA: IKEA has taken the phone tree business model and cloned it into humans.
I must say that the people who work at IKEA are fine. Friendly, knowledgeable, willing to assume authority and responsibility for your shopping success. But an IKEA employee’s sphere of knowledge and authority extends only about 12 inches outside of his body. An IKEA employee in Lighting or Couches or Pickup has no knowledge of any other department in the building, upstairs or down, or the authority to ask about them.
Thus 99 percent of the shopping knowledge, labor, authority and responsibility became vested in me, the shopper. It was brilliant. Diabolical, but brilliant. Can Y go any lower? I don’t know, but I think President Bush was in IKEA before he cranked up the Social Security business.
Journalist, author and educator Michael Grant has been putting his spin on San Diego, and the city putting its spin on him, since 1972. His Web site is at