by Lindsay Shelton
I stood in a queue at the Newtown Post Shop yesterday and thought about New Zealand Post’s plan to replace the staff with self-service kiosks. It wasn’t a long queue, and when I got to the counter the staff, as always, were friendly and polite, apologising, as they always do, for making me wait. There didn’t seem to be any need to apologise. I hadn’t been waiting more than two minutes.
One day last week, before the self-service idea had been announced, I was standing in a longer queue at the little Panama Street Post Shop. But again it didn’t take long to get to the counter, and again there was the cheerful apology.
You can understand that New Zealand Post are concerned. Their core business is shrinking – last year they handled 50 million fewer letters than the previous year, though the total was still 850 million, which doesn’t sound bad to me. But the NZ Post boss is worried. He says: “The reality is that people aren’t sending as much mail as they used to. That’s sad, but we can’t wish it away.”
I can remember an earlier time when they were worrying, and when they made the mistake of closing post offices all over the country. The post office in my home town was an elegant corner building in the main street. It’s been empty and boarded up ever since. And then of course they discovered that they needed retail outlets after all. So they invented the post shops, to the benefit of local booksellers.
I can’t help thinking that self-service kiosks will never satisfactorily replace humans behind the counters in post shops. Air New Zealand has probably persuaded most of its travellers that they can cope with self-service check-in machines. But post shop transactions involve a much wider and more complicated range of choices, most of which involve interaction with a human being rather than a confrontation with a machine.
NZ Post says there will still be staff “but it is inevitable there will be changes in the way we do our staffing.” It sounds ominous. Queuing for a self-service kiosk isn’t likely to be a pleasant experience. For a start, machines can’t smile or apologise.