My colleague Jeremy Greenwood has convinced me that advances in household technology have yielded tremendous benefits. And I’ll admit it: I love my vacuum-cleaning robot (the Roomba). Labor intensive vacuuming is, at least for me, a thing of the past.
But I just realized something rather odd: I have never seen a Roomba used to clean a hotel room. Why? The puzzle only deepens when you realize that hotels are avid users of other labor-saving devices, including dishwashers, washing machines, and dryers.
Here are seven theories:
1. Quality: Hotel staff do a better job vacuuming than the robot can. But any frequent hotel guest will object that current methods just aren’t that thorough.
2. Demand: Hotels rarely vacuum the rooms. (See #1.)
3. Social status: Hotel guests don’t want clean carpets, but rather they want people whose job is to clean up after them.
4. Information asymmetry: If clean carpets are tough to verify, then customers may rationally demand visible evidence that the carpets are being cleaned. Seeing someone pushing around a big old vacuum-cleaner provides this information. (And we are less resistant to technical change in the hotel kitchen or laundry, because those activities necessarily occur behind closed doors.)
5. Unionization: Unions have sometimes resisted labor-saving devices. Indeed, this is why I’m not allowed to use a Roomba to spruce up my U. Penn office. But it is hard to believe that hotel unions are as powerful as Penn’s unions. Beyond this: Surely management can negotiate an efficient outcome, perhaps by sharing Roomba-generated cost savings with their workers.
6. Capital-skill complementarity: This argument suggests that operating a Roomba is beyond the abilities of hotel cleaning staff. But honestly, if even a Ph.D. economist can operate one, they aren’t that complicated.
7. Capital scarcity: The Roomba — while labor-saving — is slow. The scarce resource is not labor, but unoccupied hotel rooms, and anything that slows down room turnover is too costly.
I don’t find any of these too compelling, but the most promising candidate is No. 7, combined with the fact that implementing Roomba-based vacuuming will change the workflow of hotel cleaning staff. Numbers 2 and 3 may also be part of the story. But there must be a more compelling answer. What is it?