It started in chain supermarkets. In one section of the check-out aisles there suddenly appeared self-service scanners where consumers were encouraged to check themselves out, paying with cash or plastic.
If you are the type of consumer who enjoys some friendly banter with the clerk in the check-out aisle, enjoy it while you can. It may not last much longer.
Futurist Thomas Frey predicts that soon nearly every city will have 24-hour convenience stores, 24-hour libraries, 24-hour banks, 24-hour churches, 24-hour schools, 24-hour movie theaters, 24-hour bars and restaurants, and even 24-hour shopping centers.
J.C. Penney's ill-fated attempt to develop stores within a store may eventually come to fruition as retailers will develop entire automated sections.
Industry analysts say humans are disappearing from retail establishments, replaced by kiosks. You've already seen it in video rentals. There used to be video stores, now there are vending machines at supermarkets and other public locations.
"Over the coming years we will transition from semi-automated to fully automated bars or restaurants," Frey said. As automation increases, "hours of operation will expand."
This will bring about a change to retailing, he predicts. Perhaps the biggest change since the self-serve store replaced the establishments where the clerk gathered the items you wanted from behind the counter.
"Adding store-within-a-store concepts along with after-hours product walls where people can order anything they see will give new options to shoppers," Frey said.
But maybe there's a downside to all these machines. After all, we've already seen vending machines replace video stores, a disruptive force that drove staffed stores out of business in less than a decade. Not all consumers have been thrilled with the results, even though, on the positive side, they could rent a movie at any hour of the day or night.
Theresa, of Abingdon, Va., found no one with whom she could dispute a late charge.
“Returned movies on time have e-mail confirmations thanking me for using Redbox and for returning the movies but still charged extra on my card,” she wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “I think they think it is such a small amount $1.26 that you won't bother to dispute it.”
Rachael, of Tulsa, Okla., says she normally loves using Redbox because it's inexpensive and easy. But she writes about a bad experience when the movie that came from the machine was badly scratched and wouldn't play.
Movie night is cancelled
“I call customer care and get a new code,” she writes. “Return movie. Try to get another of the same. Card won’t work. Card has been charged a couple of times in one night for a free movie. I only keep a few bucks on my card. I expected a free movie to be a free movie. Now I can't watch my movie tonight and I won't see my money back on my card for up to 10 business days?”
In the case of unplayable disks, Redbox asks that consumers contact them through their website.
Despite such hiccups, Frey remains enthusiastic about the automated future, saying the product selection from machines is already astonishing and will continue to expand. He notes that one recent vending system designed for for Quiksilver dispenses underwear, lingerie, bikinis, boxers, and briefs, items never seen in a vending machine just a short time ago.
"Our automated future will give us 24-hour access to most goods and services, many of which are only available during normal business hours today," he said. "By eliminating the restrictive nature of today's business operations, we will be freeing up attention that can be more prudently spent solving society's bigger problems."
That may indeed turn out to be a benefit for consumers, as long as they still have jobs so that they can buy things from the machines.