Steal This Service

I saw a sad little sign at a car wash this weekend and was intrigued by the idea of “stealing a service.” They’re claiming that if you use their change machine to get quarters for the laundromat then you’re stealing their service. I don’t know if the car wash owner is any more persuasive than television executives who claim that skipping the commercials on TV constitutes stealing, but I spent some time thinking about how services manage theft.

Stealing a product if fairly straightforward, but since services are intangible they can only be “stolen” by withholding payment. It seems like the easiest way to prevent theft is to require payment up front. The concept of admission covers this facet of service delivery. Theaters, amusement parks, sporting events. People steal these services by sneaking in. Postponing payment until after the service has already been delivered, like at a restaurant, creates the possibility of the “dine-and-dash” and in doing so shifts the balance of power to the customer but it implies trust on the part of the service provider and creates a more hospitable environment.

You can shift around these patterns, but something is lost in translation. Some restaurants take payment up front—fast food, take-out and cafeteria-style dining—but it’s tough to adopt this structure without seeming a little crass. Could a stylist demand money before trimming your hair? On the other hand, imagine a theater where you only paid on the way out if the movie lived up to your expectations…

  1. Andrew

    Well, it’s slightly defensible in the car wash case: you’re arguably putting wear and tear on the change machine that isn’t made up for in the income generated at the car wash. In other words, the cost of maintaining the change machine is spread out over all the car wash customers, not the laundromat customers. Change machines actually seem to break pretty often.

    They could solve this problem by making it return tokens that could only be used at the car wash.

  2. Jeff

    I can see that point of view. It’s a crummy thing to do to the car wash owner, but the sign still seems comically hostile; calling it “stealing” is a stretch and that’s what got me thinking.

    Maybe it’s because the transaction seems so balanced—I give them a dollar, they give me a dollar’s worth of quarters—that it obscures things like the time it takes for the car wash owner to stand in line and get change at the bank or the wear and tear on the changer. At least it balances out by saving wear and tear on the car washing equipment. : )

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