Self-service gets our enterprise for a bargain

Self-service checkout, photo by eltpics

You may call me a peevish old man, but these self-service supermarket checkouts give me the pip. I only encounter them when venturing out of the village, as our service-oriented IGA does not as yet have automated check-outs.

Not so a certain Brisbane supermarket which, around 5pm, seems to have nobody staffing its numerous checkouts and only one person ‘helping’ people scan their own groceries. I usually ignore the self-service corner and will wait an inordinate time to be served by a human being. Last time I was in the 12 items or less line at the same supermarket, the poor woman was switching back and forth between checkout customers and those at the cigarette counter.

Management textbooks would tell you this is successful multi-tasking and making efficient use of a staff member over what is probably a meal break. Decency would say put two people on at this location.

American Facebook page Union Thugs has a bit of a campaign going against self-service, observing that the machines (a) they kill jobs (b) they do not contribute to payroll tax and (c) they are really not that convenient.

The latter was certainly true when I returned from shopping in the city a few weeks back to find I’d charged myself twice for the same item. So back I went, burning more fossil fuel, to queue up at the lightly staffed counter where one person was multi-tasking between selling cigarettes and dealing with complaints like mine.

IGA Maleny director Rob Outridge knows the downsides of self-service checkouts but can see a time when he may be forced to introduce them. Supermarkets operate on skinny margins and the biggest fixed cost is wages, which keep on rising. So while Maleny IGA still exclusively hires people to serve at the checkouts, there may be a time when competition and the bottom line force his hand.

“The problem is your labour costs keep going up and there is no increase in productivity.”

I suspect Rob Outridge knew I was going to take a Bolshevik approach to the subject of automation doing people out of jobs. Nevertheless, he handed me his card and in that pleasant, management-by-walking-around way of his said: “Just let me know if you have any other questions.”

It’s not just that a machine replaces a worker. You (the customer) are doing the checkout job yourself – for nothing. Of course it does not stop there; we do the job of a retail employee at the ATM, the fuel pump, at toll points and just about anything someone would help you with offline is now done (by you) online.

The online world has transformed the way businesses interact with customers. In the online world there are myriad stories of businesses getting our enterprise for a bargain, as they con us into signing up for electronic bus and train cards, gadgets on your windshield which go ‘ping’ when you pass through the toll gates and so on. Last time I parked under the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition and Centre, I had to go to a machine and pay for the parking then pop it in the slot at the boom gate. There were no attendants to be seen.

It hardly seems like nine years since the toll booths closed on the Gateway Bridge and Logan Motorway. There was something refreshing about that brief interaction when you paused at the collection point and tossed your coins into the tub. When the electronic toll system Go Via was introduced in 2009, 100 toll collectors were made redundant, with 22 moving into management jobs within Go Via. Former toll collector Sharmaine Phelan told the Brisbane Times she had a tear in her eye on the last day.

“Over the years I have been here I’ve met some lovely people, some that I’ve kept in touch with who have come through the toll.”

Tolls were collected manually on the Gateway Bridge for 23 years. As a motorist, you always had to be sure to have a pile of coins ready in the console, but that was all you needed. Today, you need a beeping gadget on your windshield and an online account that has to be kept topped up or you will get a letter in the post demanding payment. Along the way, a system of debt-collecting was invented to deal with people who either didn’t have a bleeping thing on their windshield or kept forgetting to top up their account. If they are people who also ignore mail and such, then eventually the Department of Transport gets involved and pings you for non-payment of tolls.

How is that an improvement on making Sharmaine Phelan’s day, then?

Fuel stations have been exploiting their customers in this fashion for decades. Self-service fuel stations began to spread in the US and Australia in the 1970s, although at a faster rate in America. Mind you, there is still one state (New Jersey) that refuses to allow customers to pump their own gas.

Australia caught on to automated fuel service in the 1970s and the reach has been pervasive. Even in the remote outback you have to pump your own fuel and, between the hours of 9pm and 5am, you often have to go in and pay for it first. One of the downsides of self-service fuel (from the fuel retail owner’s perspective), is the minority of motorists who fill up and just drive away.

Imagine my surprise earlier this year when driving into Longreach (at night) in an urgent search for a fuel station. The only place open was not actually open but had a bowser where you could use your credit card to (a) enter how much fuel you wanted and (b) press the Pay Now button.

You might remember the rockabilly song Harold’s Super Service made popular by Merle Haggard in 1970. I suspect the writer (Bobby Wayne) was perhaps taking a dig at the about to be modernised industry with his song, in which the owner of an old Model A drives in to Harold’s Super Service and insists on getting his money’s worth.

“Gimme 50 cents worth of regular (pronounced ‘reglar’)
Check my oil too if you don’t mind.
Put some air in my tires won’t you mister,
Clean my windows too if you have time”

The National Advanced Convenience and Fuel Retailing magazine (NACS) explains how automation gained the upper hand in the US. In 1969, self-service gasoline accounted for only 16% of sales in the US. By 1982, 72% of gas sold in the US was self-service and it had climbed to 90% by 2011.

I was amazed to find, amidst the proliferating supermarket-owned and franchise outlets, that there are still a handful of petrol stations in Australia offering old-fashioned driveway service. You’ll have to read Mandy Turner’s article to find out where they are, though.

Maybe it’s just that I’m approaching a certain age, but I secretly yearn for that era when the petrol station attendant filled your tank, checked your oil and washed the windscreen at the same time – just like the song.

Harold’s Super Service, Merle Haggard and band (listener warning – it’s an earworm).

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People without lists are listless

Bob’s list: “Sorry dear, there was no kale (or cabbage).”

Someone (possibly one of my lecturers), once said: ‘People without lists are listless’ – perhaps an observation on my then lack of motivation.

Decades later, I went in search of the origins of this quote and came up empty, although there are many other pithy quotes about the universal ‘to-do’ list.

Author Mary Roach, who has many opinions about lists, says that by making a list of things to be done, she loses “that vague, nagging sense that there are an overwhelming number of things to be done, all of which are on the brink of being forgotten”.

Alan Cohen, author of 24 popular inspirational books says “The only thing more important than your to-do list is your to-be list. The only thing more important than your to-be list is to be”.

I’ve been enslaved to The List since realising, as I tackled university at the ripe old age of 30, that if I wasn’t organised, it would not happen.

I‘d read a few time management books, back in the days when I aspired to be a supermarket manager, but later, embarking upon a three-year Arts degree, I made up my own system. This included hand-written term calendars posted on big sheets of butchers’ paper on the study wall. I had a diary with all lectures, tutorials and assignment deadlines colour-coded and a daily to-do list. The chief instrument of production was a huge old Olympia typewriter I bought from a Toowoomba police office sale. I decorated a large pin board with cartoons and illustrations which had something to say about productivity.

My thoughts on list-making were sharpened on a week-long trek to Gympie’s Heart of Gold film festival, followed by a spot of whale-watching. We have three one-page spreadsheets on which we tick off items every time we pack the caravan for a trip.

For reasons not easily explained, we departed from this time-honoured system and subsequently left home without a dozen items, including bath towels, phone charger, camera charger, SD card (from the camera), video camera (whale-watching, right?), a bottle of olive oil, my favourite pillow, oatmeal soap and a water bottle. Replacing the last two items was a cinch and we bought two towels from a discount department store (wash before using, the label hopefully said). The moral is, if you keep lists, actually look at them.

The three most common types of lists are (1) shopping (2) domestic chores and (3) motivational.

Motivational types will tell you it is not the items on your to-do list that matter, it is the prioritisation. People in general, but mild-mannered, non-assertive people most of all, consistently leave the most urgent and stress-inducing items for last. (Crikey, Mavis, we must talk to Jimmy (16) about his marijuana breath).

Since computers, tablets and smart phones became commonplace in homes and workplaces, the list story has taken precedence. The majority are ‘click bait’, which means whoever invented the list is getting paid for every click that takes you to an ad-festooned page. The worst of these show only one item per page, forcing you to click through if you really want to read about the 10 most successful bandy-legged men.

Some lists are, well, just way over the top. Like the one Franky’s Dad found, a list of the top 34,000 albums of all time. No, M, you don’t have time for this!

Journalist and bloggers have found that the quickest way to write a compulsive article is to turn your topic into a 10-point list. If you write a couple of paragraphs about each item you’ll quickly get to your deadline.

Lists pop up on social media all the time – ten ways to tame a wombat, 25 things you never knew about armpit hair, the top 17 crazy tattoos and so on.

Trivia aside, the shabby state of leadership and lack of sensible policy in this country suggests we all make a short list of important issues about which we feel outraged.

If you come up with more than three major items involving bad policy, prevarication, procrastination or short-term-ism, we need a change of government.

1/ #KidsoffNauru: This has become such a crisis doctors are signing an open letter to the PM; a coalition of humanitarian organisations have given the Federal Government a deadline to get 80 kids (and their parents) off Nauru. About a third of the child refugees left on Nauru are showing signs of Traumatic Withdrawal Syndrome. It is no longer OK to say it is a matter for the Nauruan government and its contractors. Whether these children are brought to Australia by November 20 or not, this has been an appalling outcome of the Federal Government’s refugee policy and should be judged so at the ballot box.

2/ Climate Change: A panel of 91 scientists has definitively told countries what they need to do by mid-century to avert the worst effects of global warming. Our Federal Government’s response to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (which recommends phasing out coal power by 2050), was predictable. Deputy PM Michael McCormack (who may one day rue uttering these words), claimed that renewable energy could not replace baseload coal power. He said Australia should “absolutely” continue to use and exploit its coal reserves, despite the IPCC’s dire warnings the world has just 12 years to avoid climate change catastrophe. The Guardian quoted Mr McCormack as also saying that the government would not change policy “just because somebody might suggest that some sort of report is the way we need to follow and everything that we should do”.

3/ Homelessness and the cost of housing: You might dimly recall Bob Hawke’s rash promise in 1987 that no Australian child would live in poverty by 1990. Three decades later the goal is as unattainable now as it was then. Even when you take into account that Hawke mis-spoke (the script said no Australian child need live in poverty), it was an empty promise. Nine prime ministers later, close to 731,000 Australian children are living in poverty.

The official homeless figure at the 2016 Census was 116,000, with about 7% (about 8,000 people) said to be ‘sleeping rough’, defined as on the street, on a park bench, under bridges and overpasses, in their cars or in makeshift shelters. These statistics damn all sides of politics, worsening through a period in which there has been no meaningful increase in unemployment benefits or disability pensions.

Meanwhile, property investors continue to borrow money and claim expenses (notably interest payments) against rental income. In 2014-2015, 1.27 million property investors (12% of taxpayers), reduced their personal income tax through negative gearing. No government has yet had the guts to scrap negative gearing or change it in any way.

Economist Greg Jericho analysed a huge Tax Office data dump to glean a few insights – most importantly, 27% of taxpayers claiming on rental properties are in the $80k to $180k tax bracket (and another 8% earn more than that). Furthermore, just over 3% of taxpayers own six or more rental properties. The proportion that own more than one house has been on the increase in recent years.

It’s all too easy to raise other concerns, such as: Adani, Great Barrier Reef, Fracking, the threat to job security for gay teachers and even the Opera House furore (smokescreen that it is).

(Wow, that sure puts my forgetting the towels into perspective. Ed)


Odd socks stamp out mental health stigma

Odd socks for mental health, photo supplied by

My choice to wear a matchless pair of socks today was a deliberate tribute to Mental Health Week. Odd Socks Day is just one of the many events sponsored through October to remind us that one in five Australians suffer a mental health disorder in any 12-month period.

I’d never heard of Odd Socks Day, but spotted a flyer in a café somewhere and tucked it away for future reference. It’s a national anti-stigma mental health campaign now in its fourth year, using odd socks as a metaphor that anyone can have an off day.

Despite the fact that the majority of people visiting GPs are consulting them about mental health or psychological issues, those with physical ailments are not confronted with the same level of discrimination, stigma and social shame.

Young people are particularly vulnerable to stigma. Research in 2016 uncovered some alarming facts about stigma and what an obstacle it is to people trying to recover from a mental illness. Headspace found that 26% of young people aged 12-25 would not tell anyone if they had a mental health problem and 22% would be unlikely/very unlikely to discuss it with their family doctor.

Fifty-two percent of young people (12-25) identified with having a mental health problem would be embarrassed to discuss the problem with anyone and 49% would be afraid of what others think.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners recently found that 62% of people (via the traditional 10-minute consultation), were seeking support for mental health disorders.

The most common mental health ailments likely to afflict people are depression, anxiety and substance abuse. Sadly, many people struggling with depression use drugs and/or alcohol to self-medicate, often with negative results.

In my former work life, the notion of taking a ‘mental health day’ was anathema to your average hard-bitten journalist, for whom the deadline reigns supreme. But in recent years the previously taboo subjects of depression and suicide are now being freely publicised and debated. The hidden cost of not properly dealing with workplace mental health problems is now an $11 billion problem for Australian commerce. There is now an argument that $1 spent on mental health services equates to a ROI (return on investment) of $2.30. So why aren’t we spending?

If there is one indicator to show how stigma and mental health ratio is shifting, it is the NRL ‘casualty ward’, which lists rugby league players and their injuries. Through the season I recall at least six players said to be having counselling for ‘psychological’ or ‘personal’ issues, the latter covering a range of non-physical traumas. Dragons half Ben Hunt spoke candidly to the media this year about seeing someone to help overcome a slump in confidence. Armchair critics (virtual bullies) did not help Ben’s situation, with a steady stream of vitriol posted on social media.

Suicide is often the end-game for people fighting ongoing battles with mental health disorders. Australia’s standardised statistics on suicide are not as high as some (11.7 per 100,000 people). Lithuania (28.6) and South Korea (26.3) head the World Health Organisation list, but Australia is nonetheless in the list of 10 countries with a suicide rate in double figures and has been for a decade.

In Australia, men are three times more likely to commit suicide (17.8 deaths per 100,000 people) than women (5.8 deaths per 100,000 people). More than 75% of all severe mental illnesses occur prior to the age of 25, and youth suicide is at its highest level in a decade.

The telling statistics revealed by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners clearly show that the system is under untenable strain.

Author Jill Stark wrote about it in a Sydney Morning Herald opinion piece – ‘What happens when the answer to R.U.O.K is no and there’s nowhere to go?’

Stark wrote from a first person perspective, after  fronting up to a GP with what she suspected was an acute recurrence of anxiety and depression. She was handed a form to fill in – a routine step in such a consultation, so the GP can make a more objective assessment of the patient’s mental health state. As Stark related, she scored 25 ‘mild to moderately depressed’ and was prescribed medication (after first being asked if she was suicidal).

The answer was no, but on the way home Stark reflected that should she indeed want to kill herself, she’d been prescribed with something well-equipped for the job.

As Stark bluntly pointed out, the time for wristbands and hashtags has passed. Doctors need the financial support Medicare can bring by allowing longer consultations for patients with complex psychological problems.

“As a matter of urgency we must stop rationing psychological services to 10 subsidised sessions per year,” she wrote.

So that was Jill Stark, wearing her odd socks in public. Bravo.

People like Jill who are having an acute mental health crisis need expert support at least once a week for as long as the crisis lasts.

The Black Dog Institute reminds us that 45% of Australians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. One in five mothers with children younger than two will be diagnosed with depression. At 13%, depression has the third highest burden of all diseases in Australia (burden of diseases refers to financial cost, mortality, morbidity etc).

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that depression will be the number one health concerned in both developed and developing nations by 2030.

That gloomy prediction was no doubt behind the WHO’s decision in 2013 to introduce an eight-year plan to change the direction of mental health in its 194 member states. The plan’s main objectives are to:

  • strengthen effective leadership and governance for mental health;
  • provide comprehensive, integrated and responsive mental health and social care services in community-based settings;
  • implement strategies for promotion and prevention;
  • strengthen information systems, evidence and research.

Global targets and indicators were agreed upon as a way to monitor implementation, progress, and impact. The targets include a 20% increase in service coverage for severe mental disorders and a 10% reduction of the suicide rate in member countries by 2020.

These are noble aims, but as the WHO observes, it requires effective leadership and governance to implement meaningful change.

Odd Socks Day is one of the rare light-hearted efforts to raise awareness of mental health. Grow, the organisation behind the campaign, runs an in-school peer program that helps young people support each other through their issues.

The overall cost of unmanaged or mismanaged mental health in the Australian workplace is approximately $11 billion a year, according to Dr Samuel Harvey. Dr Harvey, a Black Dog Institute consultant, leads the workplace mental health research program at the school of psychiatry for the University of New South Wales. He was the lead author for research published in The Lancet which found that workplaces that reduce job strain could prevent up to 14% of new cases of common mental illness from occurring.

Quite clearly, we all need to pull up our socks, odd or not, and change our attitude. If only 35% of Australians in need are actively using mental health services, we need to do more than ask R.U.O.K.

Resources: Lifeline 13 11 14,

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Keeping the Toowoomba carnival afloat

Photo: Macca amongst the people at the Toowoomba carnival of flowers – by Bob Wilson

So there we were at the unaccustomed early hour of 7am in Laurel Bank Park, Toowoomba, trying to catch Macca’s eye to say, “Mate, we’re here.”

Ian McNamara,* the host of Australia all Over, who sometimes plays music by our band, The Goodwills, had invited us to attend his second OB (outside broadcast) of the year.

Laurel Bank Park was pretty as a picture, thanks to a big team of gardeners and a decision by the Toowoomba Regional Council to water the town parks, despite the drought. It makes little sense to have a famous Carnival of Flowers without making some attempt to preserve the gardens.

The Toowoomba Carnival of Flowers has been going for 69 years, attracting ever-larger crowds each year to take tours of the prize-winning gardens, watch the grand parade and dine out in the city’s eclectic ‘Eat Street’. It was sentimentally appropriate that we were in Laurel Bank Park, where rumour has it we (She and Me) once had a re-affirmation of vows ceremony, cunningly disguised as a bush dance. We lived in Toowoomba in the 1980s (and my how this sprawling country town has grown).

Last weekend, we stayed with old friends at Highfields, now a satellite suburb 10 kms north-west. Our friends bought an acre of land and a house there when it was still in the bush. Now there’s a service station on the corner (and traffic lights). We drove into town to watch the Grand Parade on Saturday, parking in a secret place known only to locals. On the way we detoured up Bridge Street, past what used to be the Toowoomba Foundry, now home to the biggest Bunnings store I’ve seen for a long time. The Foundry facade on Ruthven Street has been left standing, along with remnants of the old saw-tooth factory roof, which you don’t see much of in this era of tilt-slab concrete industrial sheds.

Toowoomba has certainly become not only bigger but more multicultural since we lived there. Walking past St James Anglican Church on Russell Street, we saw many Sudanese people gathered outside. They had just returned from the funeral of the Rev James Ajak, a respected priest and community leader among Toowoomba’s large South Sudanese community. A thousand people, some who came from as far away as Western Australia, attended his funeral at the Centenary Heights State High School Assembly Hall.

Multicultural Toowoomba carnival

Multicultural groups were well represented in the grand parade of floats, bands, vintage cars and dancing schools. Our host told us an amusing story about a grand parade from years gone by when it rained relentlessly. There were two elephants on a flat-bed truck, he said, and one of them heeded nature’s call, leaving a wet pile of dung for the people following behind to negotiate.

It wasn’t really the right mental picture for a lovely Spring day with a big crowd of good-natured people enjoying the hour-long parade, led by the Toowoomba Caledonian Pipe Band. I was never very good at estimating crowds, even though I was given a few tips by Toowoomba police back in the day when I worked at The Chronicle as a general reporter and columnist.

Thousands, let’s say, drifting down Margaret Street to Queens Park where floats were lined up for inspection (and judging). Our host’s grandkids cunningly detoured Pop to sideshow alley, while we strolled hand in hand through one of our special places. If Queens Park had been watered lately, it was still thirsty, not surprising given the city has had only 70mm of rain in the past six months. Only one of those rainy days amounted to much (20.8mm). As gardeners would know, this is when you have to think about what to water and when.

Nonetheless, Laurel Bank Park, with its topiary, flower beds, scented garden, flowering peach trees and bowling green lawns was at its showcase best. We did catch Macca’s eye, as he roamed among the 600 or so people who showed up to listen to his four and a half hour live Sunday morning broadcast.

We sang a couple of songs and listened with admiration to local duo Kay Sullivan (accordion) & Peter Freeman (double bass) accompany Mimosa, a gypsy jazz duo from Terrigal, with Toowoomba trombone player Ian Craig chiming in as required. Macca sang a couple of songs and the band played along – as if they’d all had rehearsals. It was impressive.

Later I was reminded of the column I once wrote for the Toowoomba Chronicle in the 1980s. It started life prosaically as This Week with Bob Wilson and later became Friday on My Mind. We were reminiscing about the time our local folk club built a scale model of the Glenrowan Pub on the back of a truck and entered it into the grand parade with a bush ranger theme. I satirised this in one of my old columns (September 1984). Such fun to quote yourself:

“The float-building gang were having a right old bludge. There was Bluey swarming all over the back of his smash repair truck pulling ropes and lugging hay bales while the gang of nine procrastinated beneath a tree where someone had thoughtfully erected a makeshift bar, keg and 10 seven ounce glasses. Ted and Hughie arrived with their contribution to the float – a four-metre high model of the Ryebuck Shearer complete with black singlet, hand shears and a big placard which read “One out, all out”. Bluey inspected the newcomer and tapped its 44-gallon drum chest.

“Good welding job. Thing must weigh a ton.”

“He used to shear 100 sheep a day, mate,” said Molly.

Ben turned up in his bright green Ute with two sheep in the back. Hollering things like ‘Bewdy’ and ‘Have a go’, Ben carted the bewildered animals (one under each arm like Colin Meads), and plonked them on the back of the truck.

“I’ll bet we need a permit to transport live sheep on an open truck during a street parade,” said Cautious Col.

By midnight the day before the grand parade, the Ryebuck Shearer had been bolted to the back of the truck cab, a sheep chained to each of his formidable legs.

“You’re not going to leave them sheep here all night are you?” Bluey said. “They could clean up my back yard before tomorrow.

“It is tomorrow,” said Molly, “And I’m going home.”

Later, about noon, the Rybebuck Shearer was disqualified from the parade because stewards ruled that neither he nor his placard could pass safely beneath overhead power lines. Ben’s sheep (Banjo and Henry), were also pulled out of the race. Rain fell on the parade and the bloke who’d lent the hay bales said they weren’t worth a pinch of sheep now and charged them $2 a bale. Bluey’s truck got a flat tyre as he tried to turn it round in the marshalling yards. Molly started crying into her rum and coke and the barmaid from across the road came over and said anyone with pub glasses please take them back or she’d lose her job.

“I told you so,” said Col.

*Rebecca Levingston interviews Ian McNamara on South Bank’s Ferris wheel, August 2017 (log in to Facebook first).

Clarification: Last week I referred to the cost of a visitor visa to Nauru as $800. It is $8,000 for a journalist.