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We Must Save 7-Eleven From the Machines

Fully automated stores are exactly what the convenience chain’s customers don’t need

When I moved across the country, from New York to L.A. — a city I’d barely visited before — my greatest initial relief was at seeing the glow of a 7-Eleven on a street corner close to my apartment. I’m not embarrassed to say that my attachment to the brand is personal. The 7-Eleven (and its parking lot) were essential to teenage life in suburban New Jersey, a rendezvous point, convenient hangout and supply store all in one. It felt good to know that the store’s loving embrace and peculiar smell extended from coast to coast. Ah, the convenience.

That’s why I was aghast to learn they’re running a pilot program for fully automated locations:  

No. NO. Fuck you. Absolutely not. Take away the cashiers? You are asking for ANARCHY. How does this company not realize that the lovely and patient people staffing their [checks Google] 68,236 franchises across 18 countries are a thin green line between humanism and dystopia? The idea of cutting them loose devalues the community vibe of 7-Eleven and cannot be anything but a naked ploy to circumvent any future rise in minimum wage. The store is already the definition of frictionless exchange — a place where someone stoned out of their mind can buy the Gatorade they need, thanks to an understanding employee on the other side of the transaction — and needs no improvement in that direction. The day I walk in and see folks struggling to interface with robot checkout stations, I’m going to start ordering Doritos in bulk online. And what a very sad occasion that will be, to realize the soul of 7-Eleven is gone.

These days, I live off Santa Monica Boulevard, a thoroughfare that offers a 7-Eleven about every half-mile or so. I find it pleasing that each one has its own character, a specific layout and specialty items you won’t necessarily find in the others. Plus, of course, the people who tailor the location to its neighborhood and customers in a way that an algorithm never will. To those who don’t visit 7-Elevens, it would be easy to take them as a monolithic entity — so why worry that they’ll be homogenized by machines over the next decade? Because to those who know better, the chain has the warmth of a home away from home, right down to the sticky patch on the floor where someone spilled a Big Gulp that morning.

They may not be independent small businesses, but many have created the familial air of a mom-and-pop operation. To replace that with what amounts to a building-sized vending machine is a betrayal we won’t soon forget.