As life gets more crowded, I wonder if we will have to pay more and more special fees to get served first, to avoid the masses, even to obtain simple, everyday purchases and services.
People already pay fees to have concierge doctors standing by, available to them almost instantly — sometimes 24/7 by cellphone — so they never have to wait their turn to see physicians like regular folks do.
Paying for exclusivity has always been the way of the wealthy. But ordinary people are increasingly paying to jump to the head of the line to avoid competing with crowds.
Skiers at popular resorts pay more to get in special, less crowded lift lines. Disneyland offers line-jumping VIP tours for a large fee to make the “happiest place in the world” even happier — and less stressful. Plenty of people pay for expedited screening for security lines at airports.
But the salient point here is, I think, that we are starting to see crowd-avoidance fees here in Hawaii at the most mundane places.
Take the Kapiolani Community College’s farmers’ market on Saturdays. I came across an example of this kind of pay-for-access offering this weekend at the popular market at Diamond Head.
The Hawaii Farm Bureau earlier this month began to promote a novel way to help locals avoid the masses of tourists crowding into the market.
It is offering local shoppers early admission into the market before tourist crowds surge in — if the locals pay a fee.
For $15 dollars, shoppers can purchase short-term Hawaii Farm Bureau memberships to enter the market at Diamond Head 15 minutes ahead of everybody else.
The market opens at 7:30 a.m. Early shoppers can get in at 7:15 a.m. to select and pay for their produce. Such people can avoid the crowds and get first choice of the fruits, vegetables and flowers.
The Farm Bureau says it’s a pilot project scheduled to end Aug. 31. If a decision is made to make it permanent, shoppers will be able to buy early admission into the Diamond Head market all year long for the price of an annual “Friends of Farmers” membership: $60.
“I don’t like having to pay money for what we could do before for free,” says Palolo Valley resident Judy Murata. “But I love the vendors. I love the market; I really do. I am passionate about it, so I am willing to pay.”
Murata is among the more than 60 people who have already signed up for early admission.
Kacey Robello, the market’s general manager, says the Hawaii Farm Bureau membership offers more than just early admission to the KCC market. The member benefits include discounts on medical, dental and car insurance, as well as cheaper rates at some hotels and car rental companies.
“I don’t like having to pay money for what we could do before for free. But I love the vendors. I love the market; I really do. I am passionate about it, so I am willing to pay.” — Palolo Valley resident Judy Murata
The Farm Bureau has been grappling with what to do to restore customer satisfaction at the market for a long time.
First, it had to deal with complaints from local residents after the once-quiet neighborhood market became a major tourist attraction with buses and vans dropping off thousands of tourists, most of them coming to take pictures and to eat breakfast rather than to buy fresh produce.
Each Saturday more than 7,000 people — mostly tourists — come to the market.
Soon the local shoppers figured out their own solution. They began to arrive before the market opened to pick out the produce they wanted. Then, when the market opened officially at 7:30 a.m., they paid for the produce they had reserved and were on their way home as the influx of tourists and other shoppers began to crowd in.
But all that ended following the death of a market worker March 15. Annie Runland, 27, was run over and killed by a market delivery truck about an hour before the market opened when some early shoppers were milling around.
After Runland’s death — even though the early arrivals had nothing to do with the fatal accident — shoppers were prohibited from entering the market before the opening horn at 7:30 a.m. “Fewer people, less risk,” said Chris Manfredi, the Farm Bureau’s president.
But the new prohibition created another problem. The former pre-opening shoppers began to surge into the market Saturday, waiting anxiously for the opening horn to sound.
“We would have 200 people waiting for the opening after which they stampeded in like it was the Oklahoma land rush. I said, ‘We have to do something before someone gets hurt and sues us,'” said George Fox, a Hawaii Farm Bureau volunteer.
That was when the new pay-to-enter-early option was created.
Dean Okimoto, the owner of Nalo Farms and former president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, says, “We want to take care of the locals. If local people can get in early and buy their stuff, they will come back. They are the ones who buy our farm produce, not the tourists.”
Okimoto says a lot of people told him they had stopped coming to the market. “They said it was too crowded, not worth it. We need them back.”
He knows it is impossible to stop tour companies from dropping off thousands of tourists at the KCC market but he met with major tourism companies including Jalpak International Hawaii and JTB last August to urge them to at least think of contributing money to help the Farm Bureau improve the market. “To ask them each to at least contribute a couple thousand dollars a month,” said Okimoto, “so we could hire more police officers and built better bathrooms, but they refused.”
Speaking of the tourism companies, he added: “They take and take and don’t want to give back.”
Revelyn Yumul, the owner of North Shore Produce, a regular vendor at the market, say she likes the new entry option. “We didn’t want to lose our local customers. A lot were staying away because of the crowds.”
But some vendors say the early admission plan is making it more hectic for them. Souk Hoang, owner of Pit Farm, has been selling his Mililani-farmed vegetables and fruits at KCC since the market opened 11 years ago. Hoang says it is frenzied with early customers coming in to visit and shop while he is still trying to set up for the regular opening time. “It’s too hard,” he explained.
If the market admits paying customers early, Hoang added, it should allow the vendors to come in earlier than the current 5:30 a.m. set-up time.
Another criticism comes from both vendors and shoppers. Okimoto, of Nalo Farms — who was one of the three founders of the KCC market — says a 15-minute period for early shopping is too short. “The Farm Bureau has to allow a half an hour at least,” he said.
But market manager Kacey Robello says 15 minutes is fine.
“The early shoppers are regulars. They know exactly what they want. I have seen some finish up in just five minutes,” says Robello.
Shopper Judy Murata agrees with Okimoto, “The main comment I hear from shoppers is there is not enough time. Everyone is rushing around. They should let us in at 7 a.m.”
Murata says she realizes it is difficult for the Farm Bureau to come up with an ideal solution,
“This is an imperfect solution,” she says. “If they make the early entry option to avoid the crowds permanent I will pay the $60 for an annual membership to get some quiet time in the market, but it is unfortunate it had to come to this.”
I wonder where else in Hawaii we will start to see the option of paying to swish through the masses to get to the head of the line.