Against the Self-Checkout

Retailers are finally starting to get rid of self-checkout lanes at their stores. I'm neither surprised nor heartbroken by this development. I've found self-checkout to be more trouble than it's worth, and I avoid it whenever possible.

(from pin add on Flickr)

My beef isn't with self-checkout itself, it's with the fact that it's poorly implemented in a lot of stores. It could be a great substitute for the "express" checkout, because there are some stores I don't even bother shopping at if I'm not buying a full basket of stuff, because I have no choice but to stand behind people doing their heavy shopping.

The real problem with self-checkout is that there's no predictability. When you get into a regular line behind someone with a cart full of stuff, you can reasonably guess how long it's going to take for the cashier to ring them up. When you get in line behind someone at the self-checkout, you have to wait for them to awkwardly try to find their produce in a big on-screen list, you have to wait for an employee to come over and properly ring up their beer and wine, you have to watch them fumble with coupons. It's often a total mess.

If self-checkouts were exclusively for customers with less than 10 items, all of which have bar codes and aren't alcoholic, then I'd be all for it. For that matter, I wish there were more express lanes generally, but stores have apparently decided they aren't worth it.

Working at an Amusement Park

I really liked This American Life's Amusement Park episode. I spent four summers of my teenage life working at an amusement park, so this was something I could certainly relate to. There's something special about working at these parks that, even years later, I've never fully been able to wrap my head around.

(from Steve Snodgrass on Flickr)

As far as jobs go, amusement park jobs look awful on paper. When I worked as a ride operator, I earned minimum wage (if I remember it was something like $5.25 an hour at the time). We usually worked 60 or more hours per week, and got 1 day off every week. "Open-to-close" or "OC" was a term that everyone knew. We worked many of those shifts.

Since we were classified as "seasonal employees" under Ohio law, we weren't entitled to overtime, benefits, or anything else you might expect from full-time employment. If you worked hard maybe you'd get promoted, earn $8 or $10 per hour, and get to manage a team of people.

Despite all that, so many people genuinely loved working at the park. I don't think it had to do with the work itself, which was incredibly boring and repetitive. It certainly wasn't dealing with customers, most of whom were fine, but enough of whom were demanding, offensive, and obnoxious. No, I think it was the fact that going into work was like going and hanging out with a big group of friends. It was the social aspect of it all.

I always thought turnover at the park was relatively low, all things considered. The stories on This American Life reminded me that it's probably the same story at every amusement park in America, and it has more to do with the people you work with than the work you do.

The Truth About Gourmet Burgers

Last winter I set out to figure out what's so special about the gourmet burger craze in DC. At the time, I couldn't understand why people were so excited about a simple food that's not especially difficult to make at home. Over the course of the year, I've eaten at about half a dozen of DC's "gourmet burger" restaurants. I've found them to be more similar to each other than unique, and hardly anything to write home about.

(from frivolous_accumulation on Flickr)

One thing that all of these places have in common is that they're surprisingly expensive. I went to BGR and the "lunch special" set me back over $10. A burger, fries and drink at Good Stuff Eatery was $14-something. And a burger, fries, and shake at Shake Shack during lunch cost me $16. The burgers are "unique" in that they often have toppings and sauces that you might not usually put on a burger, but at the end of the day, you're still just eating a piece of ground beef formed into a patty and slapped on a bun.

I think what's happened is that we've gotten so used to McDonalds and Burger King that Big Macs and Whoppers have become the new "normal" when it comes to hamburgers; so any burger that's prepared properly, from fresh (not frozen) beef, and served with fries that didn't come from a bag in the freezer, seems like something amazing.

I guess I'm not quite willing to pay so much for "gourmet burgers" because I can make something nearly as good at home for a fraction of the price. Sure, I might not be able to come up with the same combination of toppings and sauces, but that's OK. On the other hand, I'm willing to pay for good sushi, because even though I could make sushi at home, I can't make it easily or well at all. There's a skill involved in making sushi that I simply do not have.

There is still one restaurant that I still tried - Ray's Hell Burger. Ray's claim to fame is that they raise grass-fed cows and age the meet to perfection. In that sense, it's not just that they're putting exotic toppings on regular burgers (they also do that), but that they're actually offering a product that you can't get anywhere else.

Housing as a Commodity

I recently got a chance to read Ryan Avent's Kindle book The Gated City. I have a lot of respect for the author. I think he's one of the smartest people around when it comes to urban economics. I even interviewed him here on this blog back in 2009. As far as the book goes, it's very good, and I recommend it to anyone reading this post.

There are two points that I wish wish would have gotten fleshed out more in the book, and in discussions of housing markets more generally. I'll cover one today, and the other later.

A recurring argument amongst writers like Ryan Avent and Matt Yglesias and Ed Glaeser is that the housing market suffers from a supply/demand imbalance. More specifically, there isn't enough supply, and that's the reason why so many neighborhoods in so many cities are unaffordable. If only we could boost the supply of housing to meet the demand, we could bring down, or at least stabilize, rents.

(from M.V. Jantzen on Flickr)

This idea rests, first and foremost, on the assumption that housing is a commodity. Consider a different commodity market - wheat. If wheat prices are very high, one way to bring them down is to boost production and flood the market with more wheat. This works because wheat actually is a commodity. Every unit of wheat is more-or-less the same as every other unit, so the price is whatever price the market dictates.

Housing is different. There are many unique types and styles of housing, some of which are more desirable than others. When demand for housing rises in a neighborhood, rents will rise, regardless of the type or quality of the housing. A neighborhood might have century-old rowhouses, 70s apartments, and brand new luxury buildings. If demand is rising in that neighborhood, rents for all types of these units will rise.

But what if a neighborhood doesn't have any vacant land sitting around waiting to be developed? How do you increase the supply of housing when there's no place to build new housing? Basically, you have to knock something down and replace it with higher density housing.

Neighborhood Transformation

Yesterday I rode my bike over to check out the H Street NE neighborhood festival, followed by a screening at the DC Shorts film festival at the Atlas Theater. Ever since major construction finished on H Street NE this summer, it's become clear as day that it's now only a matter of time before the area becomes another established, trendy DC neighborhood. After last year's festival I wrote that the neighborhood still looked like a wreck, and I tried to imagine its future . In only 12 months, it's amazing how much things have changed.

(from DDOTDC on Flickr)

If I had money to invest in real-estate, H Street, or Near Northeast, or whatever people are labeling the area, is definitely where I'd buy. The area has a very nice housing stock, consisting of many historic rowhouses. Some need work, while others are already in the process of renovation. Though it's not "well connected" to the rest of the city at the moment, the new streetcar should change that, as soon as it begins operating.

A lot of people look at neighborhoods in urban areas and comment about the amazing transformation that has occurred over the years. Everyone knows of at least one where "nobody in their right mind" used to go that's transformed into something that's incredibly desirable. H Street is interesting because you can literally see it happening right now. It's like being able to see 10 years into the future, knowing more or less what the neighborhood will become.

Metro Station Name Drama

David Alpert has a nice take down of many of the poorly conceived Metro station renames that have been proposed. He cites the Navy Yard-"W" rename as an especially egregious example, but many of the others he mentions are nearly as frustrating.

(from Mr. T in DC on Flickr)

Ultimately, the questions that must be answered with regard to these renames are: who benefits? and why? The renamers would argue that it benefits anyone (though disproportionately visitors) who want to travel to various destinations in DC via Metro and aren't familiar with the layout of the city.

At first glance, renaming "Navy Yard" to "Navy Yard-Ballpark" seems like a fine idea, since it is the station that most Nationals fans use to get to games. I say "most" because some do arrive by exiting at Capitol South and walking down New Jersey Avenue. In fact, for anyone coming in on the Orange or Blue lines, Capitol South is often a better place to exit the system.

Similarly, there are other destinations that people often make unnecessary transfer to reach, as I wrote about a few months ago. Adding "ballpark" to the Navy Yard station name may seem harmless at first, but what it does is to announce that it is the one and only station to use if you want to get to a game.

DC's Disappearing Third Places

Earlier in the week, Topher Mathews wrote about the loss of one of DC's third places - the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Georgetown. While it's no surprise that the brick-and-mortar bookstore industry is on its way to becoming ancient history, it's nevertheless sad to see the neighborhood lose its store. Topher writes:
What made Barnes and Noble a particularly great Third Place was that it offered Georgetowners and visitors alike a place to escape from the heat or the cold (or just the crowds), but you didn't have to pay anything to use it.
Herein lies the dilemma. Whatever purpose Barnes and Noble serves to the community, at the end of the day it's still a business. And like all businesses, it needs to make money to survive.

(from grilled cheese on Flickr)

This all reminded me of the "Bubble Boy" episode of Seinfeld. Jerry and Elaine go to eat a diner in upstate New York, Elaine proceeds to order a glass of water, and after some back and forth, Jerry finally says:
You can't just have water... this is not like a park bench where you just come in and sit down. It's a business.
When it comes to third spaces, you can't have it both ways, but this is especially true in DC, where the overhead cost of doing business is extraordinarily high. Topher notes that the retail space Barnes & Noble is vacating is going on the market for $65 per square foot.

Over on 14th Street, Lydia Depillis calculates that the space soon to be vacated by Miss Pixies will go onto the market for $80 per square foot. This is by no means pocket change, and any business willing or able to pay such prices needs to have incredible revenue flow.