#172: Running Up That Hill

Whenever supply chains become a topic of mainstream discussion, as they have lately, we all become aware, however briefly, of our own individual positions within those supply chains, usually as the ultimate recipients of whatever is being shipped around the world. This awareness erupts periodically, and, aside from the occasional thread about shipping containers piling up in Long Beach, we usually discuss distant “supply chain issues” in such vague terms that the supply chain itself remains a pure abstraction, a broad explanation for everything that’s not working. But other components of the supply chain are extremely concrete and familiar—so familiar, in fact, that we rarely recognize them as part of the supply chain at all. The so-called “last mile,” the part of the supply chain in which consumers are most likely to participate directly, has plenty of its own problems, many of which predate the present moment as well as the pandemic itself. The most common incarnation of the last mile, despite the significant incursions of e-commerce and app-based food delivery, still involves going to a brick-and-mortar store, finding merchandise on the shelves, buying it, and taking it home. This time-honored method has an elegant simplicity, but as a link in the supply chain, it has its own problems.

Pharmacies like CVS and Duane Reade, in particular, seem to occupy the front lines of a mundane dystopia that is gradually enveloping us all. Because I generally avoid using Amazon to order items that are available at stores I can easily walk to from my house, I end up making regular trips to neighborhood convenience stores, which are becoming inconvenient enough to make me reconsider my policy: An increasingly large percentage of the stores’ merchandise is locked behind glass as a safeguard against large-scale shoplifting (including most of the stuff I actually buy at these places, like razorblades and deodorant), which means that my visits typically involve hunting down a store employee who has a key to unlock the case. These chains’ embrace of self-checkout kiosks, however, means that there are fewer and fewer employees in a given store, and tracking one down can double or triple the duration of the errand. Ironically, the lack of employees and their replacement with self-checkout makes shoplifting more likely, which in turn necessitates locking up more of the merchandise, in what appears to be a vicious cycle. The absurdity of stalking the CVS aisles searching for a store’s single employee contrasts with what is clearly sound business logic, as the savings from reduced headcount offset the costs of increased theft. Repeatedly finding myself in retail environments where the customer is collateral damage in the tense battle between payroll and loss prevention is nearly enough to drive me into the welcoming arms of Amazon Prime, but I’m too stubborn to accept that just yet.

I don’t offer this anecdote as a cranky riff on the headaches of modern life, but rather as a subtle but tangible indicator of the customer’s new role within a larger optimization function that doesn’t pretend to revolve around them (as Amazon’s famously claims to). I’ve written previously about the ongoing evolution of physical retail stores into quasi-fulfillment centers optimized for throughput, in which customers not only perform more of the labor once done by employees, but also share space with third-party gig workers for whom supermarkets, restaurants, and other stores function as literal fulfillment centers for delivery (the pandemic obviously accelerated this transition). The implicit message of all this, for ordinary customers, is that we should have stayed home and ordered online—these spaces aren’t for us; we’re effectively trespassing in the company’s warehouse. Walking along certain stretches of 14th Street in Manhattan reveals a post-COVID retail wasteland in which recently-vacated chain stores have been repurposed as 15-minute grocery delivery hubs, a sign of the emergent last-mile landscape in dense cities. On mature digital platforms like Facebook, similarly, there’s a growing sense that they have exhausted the opportunities to make obvious improvements in their users’ lives: With most of the consumer surplus long since unlocked, all that’s left is making the users themselves more valuable by conditioning their behavior via minor nudges and UX tweaks that occasionally even feel like outright coercion. In an essay I wrote for Business Insider this week (the first installment of a new monthly column I’m doing), I noted how algorithmic streaming recommendations aren’t necessarily meant to expand our horizons, but rather to “reshape users to experience desire on schedule and in pre-formatted ways,” as Rob Horning wrote, thereby making those users more valuable as advertising targets. When we make vague generalizations about supply chain issues, our lack of specificity enables us to pretend that we’re always the prized customers at the end of the chain, rather than the goods being shipped.

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