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Amazon’s Move Signals End of Line for Many Cashiers

From The New York Times:

Our mental image of job-killing automation is robots in factories or warehouses. But the next jobs to disappear are probably ones that are a much bigger part of most people’s daily lives: retail workers and cashiers in stores and restaurants.

For a long time, economists argued that routine jobs like factory and clerical work were vulnerable to automation but that jobs in both the service and knowledge sectors were safer. They require human skills that are hard for machines to imitate, like judgment and adaptability. These skills are useful when an executive makes strategic business decisions or when a chef fries one customer’s egg and scrambles another’s.

But it has become increasingly clear that parts of every job will be automated — and that the service sector is next. Although certain service jobs like health aide or preschool teacher still seem safe, others, like those in retail and food service, are already being displaced. It’s not hard to teach a machine to do routine tasks like scanning bar codes, stocking shelves or dunking fries in oil.

Eight million people, 6 percent of American workers, are retail salespeople and cashiers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Cashier jobs are expected to grow 2 percent by 2024, significantly slower than 7 percent job growth over all, and technology is the main reason, according to the bureau.

Half the time worked by salespeople and cashiers is spent on tasks that can be automated by technology that’s currently in use, according to a recent McKinsey Global Institute report. Two-thirds of the time on tasks done by grocery store workers can be automated, it said. Another report, by Forrester, estimated that a quarter of the tasks salespeople do would be automated this year, and 58 percent by 2020.

. . . .

 Look no further than the Amazon Go store. It has no cashiers or checkout lines. People scan their phones to enter, and sensors with computer vision monitor what they put in their carts. When they leave, they are automatically charged for what they have bought. Amazon calls it “just walk out technology.”

. . . .

 Lowe’s stores in California have customer service robots that roam the aisles to answer customers’ questions and monitor inventory. The Eatsa chain of restaurants has no human workers in sight. Customers order on store iPads or on their phones, and pick up their meals from a cubby that shows their name. Several fast-food chains, including McDonald’s and Panera, also use digital kiosks for customers to order and pay by themselves.

. . . .

 Amazon said it had no plans to lay off Whole Foods workers or use Amazon Go technology to automate cashiers’ jobs.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

PG notes that, of course, the headline uses Amazon as a hook although this is a trend that has been happening for at least a couple of years in fast food restaurants and elsewhere. It’s been some time since PG has been in a large grocery store that doesn’t have a group of self-checkout scanners. Ditto for Walmart, Target, etc.

PG could find no reference to various campaigns to raise the minimum wage to $15 which are happening in various cities and states. He suggests that every increase in the cost of employing people improves the return from investments in automation of service jobs.

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46 Comments to “Amazon’s Move Signals End of Line for Many Cashiers”

  1. > It has no cashiers or checkout lines.
    > People scan their phones to enter

    “No shoes, no smartphone, no service?”

  2. i went to target today to buy something and only the self checkout lanes were open. So I went home and ordered it on amazon.

    at least a few of us dont want to buy at your store without a cashier.

    I did preshop at amazon to check on if the price difference was enough to make me want to buy on amazon. It was not… missing cashier were the deciding point.

  3. I agree with PG that raising the minimum wage above what the retailer can reasonably afford will hasten this unfortunate trend.

    What many retailers miss in their haste to automate is the fact that there are numerous people over the age of 40–yes, that low–who don’t use smartphones. Also, ever try shopping with two little kids while trying to scan a whole cartful of groceries yourself?

    On the other hand, those info robots in the aisles could be quite useful.

  4. I’ve had enough problems with self checkout lanes that I too avoid them whenever possible. On the other hand, self ordering at restaurants is something I’d like to see more of.

  5. Add me to those who don’t use a smartphone. I can afford one, I just don’t want one (I also drive an 18 year old car without a GPS system or other automated tracking stuff in it, and keep tape over my web cam). I’m not crazy, just not wild about intrusive stuff. And in spite of Hubs teaching me over and over, I still loathe self check-outs, although he loves them.

    As for self ordering in restaurants: I wouldn’t mind at most fast food places, but for fine dining, I like asking the server what’s in dishes, making substitutions or additions, or other fine-tuning of my order. Will an automaton understand that?

    Jacqueline, one of the best arguments I’ve seen for grocery pickup or delivery is having small children. Our Krogers and Giant Eagle both allow you to place your order online, then just drive up and they bring it out and load it in your car, without ever having to unbuckle the little ones. I have a friend who works doing the “picking” for those orders and she assures me they get lots of training, especially on choosing produce and meats, and choose as if they were shopping for themselves. I’d use that service myself, except that Hubs adores grocery shopping (thank goodness!)

  6. Facebook wants us to connect with everyone. Amazon wants us to connect with no one. Who wins? Whichever manages to buy the other one. But not the consumer.

    And–what Kat Sheridan said.

    • Felix J. Torres

      Actually Amazon wants to reduce the time spent shopping to free up the time needed for Facebook. 🙂

      That way both win.

  7. Raising minimum wage isn’t the big driver here, businesses want to do away with cashiers because it is doing away with cash.

    Cash is a pain in the a**, to pickup at the bank, count for the tills, video monitor for theft and errors, protect from outside theft, count the tills again at shift end, package for the deposit, and take to the bank.

    • Felix J. Torres

      Self-scan stations work fine with cash.

      • Not all of them, as I can attest through personal experience.

        The old system at Wal-Mart didn’t accept cash at all. The new one… it might work with brand new bills, but otherwise it just spits them out and complains.

        At night when I tend to shop, the chickers won’t bother to open any lanes, and more than once they’re simply stood there and watch me walk away from a loaded buggy and otu the door because they couldn’t bother to come over and work a register.

        • Suburbanbanshee

          You should demand to talk to a manager. And if they don’t get you one, talk to the day managers the next day.

    • Businesses aren’t doing away with cash. Consumers are. They are the ones bringing plastic into the stores. Businesses are following that trend with automation that takes advantage of it. When labor costs rise, that makes automation eve more competitive.

  8. The next step in self-checkout is eliminating the entire checkout process. RFID readers are already used in inventory control. The objective now is to just run the shopping cart through the scanner. No need to pile individual items on the counter. Put a credit card in the slot, and you’ve paid for the basket of stuff.

    Perhaps people will just take stuff from the shelves, and put it in bags. Walk through the scanner, insert a credit card, and head for the car.

    • “Honey, did you buy $854.17 worth of olives at AmaFoods last week?”

      “Nope. Maybe you should call… er, email… er, talk to the manager, er… is there any way to get that fixed?”

    • I am not sure the credit-card-inserting moment will be needed. If you regularly shop at the store the amount could be directly debited from your account there, just like at the amazon store.

      • Felix J. Torres

        No, the system doesn’t necessarily need to rely on a credit card or smartphone. As you say, the consumer could set up an account as online (or Costco or Sam’s Club or other membership businesses) and have their biometrics recorded, say a palm print.

        Then they just walk in, place their palm on a plate to “log in” and go fill the cart/bags. The Amazon Go system tracks both the customer and the merchandise so it runs a running tally and charges the account (credit, debit, checking, or pre-paid, when you they exit the premises.) The account might even be good at a whole swath of companies, like VISA or MASTER CARD or the phone payment systems.

        Quite doable and hardly the most “futuristic” thing we’ll see in coming years. 🙂

  9. I don’t use the ‘self-checkouts’ for one simple reason. I’m not prepared to do the stores job for them.

    • That’s the same reason I won’t use a credit card. I want then to have to count out the change. Let then do their jobs.

      • Except they don’t count out the change. They just give mindlessly you what the register says is the change.

        And God forbid you tell them “Hey, I’ve got 3 pennies here” after they punch in (or scan) your purchase and money and total it. That totally flummoxes them. Can’t figure out how much to give back to you. I’ve had cashiers/clerks actually ask ME how much they owe me.

        And forget counting up from the purchase total to the amount of money you give them. No addition/subraction required, just counting up as the change is given out. I learned how to do that in third grade, but then, I’m an old geezer Baby Boomer.

        • The best one I saw was a register that displayed the change with pictures of the bills and coins.

          If the change was $3.41, the display showed three dollar bills, one quarter, one dime, one nickel, and one penny.

          • OMG! It’s worse than I ever imagined! 🙁

            (There’s a Walmart sign floating around the Internet that’s posted at the 15 items or less checkout. It shows 3 hands and “15 is this many”!)

          • "James F. Brown

            “If the change was $3.41, the display showed three dollar bills, one quarter, one dime, one nickel, and one penny.”

            Uh, what if there were no quarters in the till? Would the cashier be able to figure out giving 4 dimes and a penny? 🙁

            And what if the customer fished out 4 pennies and gave it to the cashier? What then?

  10. I live across the street from WalMart and regularly shop there. It was about a year ago they opened up a whole battery of self-checkouts. A year later, I still prefer to stand in the old-fashioned cashier line-up.

    Why?

    I used to work in a furniture factory, about twenty years ago or so. I still vividly remember the day they brought in an automatic saw system that would automatically load the sheets of particle board, guide them into the blade of the saw and cut each piece to size. Then, at the end of the line, it would stack each piece.

    It was like something out of a Wile E. Coyote wet dream fantasy.

    The end result was a crew of five workers was trimmed down to two workers. One fellow at the front of the machine and one fellow at the back – and three fellows standing on the sidewalk looking for a new job.

    I don’t like to see all of this automation coming on like it is. Where are all of these automated stores going to find customers, if half of their clientele is suddenly on the dole?

    Besides, I have another reason for using the old-fashioned cash registers.

    Every time that I walk into Wal-Mart and fill my cart and stand at the check-out I watch and giggle a little as people race up to the automated check-out and then stumble over some stupid little item, waiting for one of the so-called managers to come over and help them figure out what the automated system has futzed up.

    Just this weekend I stood in the check-out line behind six people and watched a green-haired, tattooed, bubble gum chewing “manager” try to help a heavy-set blonde housewife run her groceries through the automatic check-out.

    Even with six people in the regular check-out line, I still got my groceries rung in and bagged before the automated check-out had chewed through the other woman’s groceries.

    Don’t get me wrong.

    I am still a big Amazon fan, but I still hate to see ANYONE lose their job.

    The bean-counters will tell you that by eliminating their workforce they are lowering their overhead – but an old fart like me figures differently.

    You eliminate your foot soldiers, you eliminate your feet -and then what the hell are you going to stand upon?

    I will tell you this much.

    I am NOT going to ask a robot “Which aisle are the beans in?”

    • I don’t like to see all of this automation coming on like it is. Where are all of these automated stores going to find customers, if half of their clientele is suddenly on the dole?

      Exactly. That’s what happened when farm labor dropped from 42% of the workforce in 1900 to the current 2%. Same thing happened with elevator operators and telephone operators. They are all on the dole.

      Even worse was the introduction of self-service gas pumps. All those guys in gas stations who used to run out and pump gas were put on the street. Zillions more on the dole.

      Think how much better life would be if we had to talk to an operator to place a long distance call, and we could chat with the friendly operator driving the elevator. And working in the fields is so much healthier than sitting an air conditioned office.

      • “All those guys in gas stations who used to run out and pump gas were put on the street. Zillions more on the dole.”

        They could move to Oregon. No self-serve gas pumps there. Except that if you’re a motorcyclist, they will usuallly hand you the nozzle, since most motorcyclists (me included) will NEVER let someone else fill the bike tank. But you have to wait for them to come up and hand it to you. And then put it back. And then take your cc or cash and give you the receipt and change.

      • Felix J. Torres

        Then there’s all the ditch diggers replaced by backhoes.

        http://www1.salary.com/Heavy-Equipment-Operator-salary.html

  11. One thing that both the analysis and hand-wringing are missing is that retail workers, aka sales people, don’t do the same job they did years ago.

    It used to be I could walk into the housewares department of a store and ask the salesgirl (and they were predominantly female and no one took offense to being called a girl) what the difference was between two different, oh, pressure cookers or blenders–other than the price. The woman would then tell me the different features of each appliance, ask me what kinds of things I wanted to use it for, and help me decide.

    Now, if you can find a salesperson on the floor, they generally don’t know anything about the products they’re selling.

    Or I could go into the clothing department, tell the salesgirl what I was looking for and in what size, and she’d show me to the rack and even suggest a style she thought would look good on me. She’d often check the stockroom if my size wasn’t on the rack or shelf.

    Now, if you do that, the most you’ll get is a vague wave of the hand, accompanied by something like, “Over there.” Or if you ask if they have any more of a particular item in your size, the answer is, “Everything is on the rack.”

    I get a lot more help from Amazon descriptions of the items, the Question and Answer section (sometimes answered by the vendor, but more often by other customers), and customer reviews.

  12. We all want good wages but at the same time want to pay low prices for decent products and services. We’re all now learning the hard way that we really can’t have it both ways, at least not indefinitely, without the inevitable consequences circling back to bite us in our collective behinds.

    • Felix J. Torres

      With all the handwringing about the loss of low skill jobs to automation there seems to be no interest in doing something about the millions of high-paying high-skill jobs that are open but unfilled because the education system isn’t producing enough of the required workers.

      All we hear is “pay higher wages to low skill employees” and “throw more money at the schools” but nothing about aligning the output of the educational establishment with the actual needs of the 21st century economy.

      Maybe it’s time to toss out the 1968 playbook and try some 21st century approaches?

      • Felix J. Torres

        For the record, the shortages aren’t just in the STEM professions, but also in skilled trades. Try running an online search for “skilled trades shortage” to see how long this has been going on and how it is only getting worse. One random ample:

        https://www.forbes.com/sites/emsi/2013/03/07/americas-skilled-trades-dilemma-shortages-loom-as-most-in-demand-group-of-workers-ages/#3dbabade6397

        And to make things worse, we are entering a new age of advanced manufacturing where high tech manufacturing and automation are bringing back manufacturing jobs that went overseas because the new tools make american workers the most productive in the world. But only those with the skills to operate and maintain the 21st century fabbers.

        • The shortage is complicated. I once worked as a receptionist at a temp agency. We had no lack of people coming in with welding certificates or on-the-job experience in skilled trades, but our companies (mainly small-midsized machine shops) didn’t want to hire most of them.

          They didn’t want to hire the people with new certificates because they didn’t have any experience – but where are they going to get it if no one will hire them? They didn’t want to hire anyone with a criminal record, regardless of what the crime had been or how long ago it had been committed. The people with years of experience didn’t want to work for the $10/hour those companies were offering. And if the potential hire was a woman? “She won’t fit in with our company culture.”

          So it’s not just a shortage of skilled workers, but a matter of changing employers’ attitudes about who to hire.

          • They didn’t want to hire the people with new certificates because they didn’t have any experience – but where are they going to get it if no one will hire them?

            They do what welders did for years. They follow the work to places where there is a high demand. That can also mean living in their car or in a construction camp hot sheeting 12-hour shifts.

            Lots of guys with new welding certificates drove up to the Bakken field in North Dakota a few years back. They got lots of experience, and lots of money. Then those employers in other parts of the country compete for them.

            Welders waiting for employers to change will be waiting in the unemployment line.

            • Felix J. Torres

              You don’t have to be religious to appreciate that deities help those that help themselves.

              Fact is, entrepreneurial thinking isn’t just for business types. Sometimes you have to take risks and bet on yourself. Especially when others won’t bet on you. (This doesn’t really need saying around here, does it? 😉 )

              If the only people that will hire the inexperienced pay $10, then maybe that is the market rate. It’s still better than minimum wage and taking it when you’re inexperienced doesn’t mean you’ll have to take it when you’re experienced. Good careers don’t materialized fully formed out of the heavens, they take work and dedication.

              Now some people are served poorly by “educational” institutions like some of the shadier truck driving schools. But “doing your homework” is a necessity in all walks of life.

              Again, generally understood around here so I’ll stop preaching to the choir.

      • Agreed. Our education system is as outdated and antiquated as the bulk of our physical infrastructure is.

        • Felix J. Torres

          And fixing the educational system would go a long way towards fixing the other. There’s a big boost to the economy (and tax receipts as well as balance of trade) just waiting to happen but only if industry can find the skilled workers needed to ramp up to modern manufacturing.

          Instead of paying people to stay in dead end low skill jobs we could be paying to train them for more productive and higher paying roles so they don’t remain cashiers or warehouse pickers forever.

          • "James F. Brown

            @ Felix

            “Instead of paying people to stay in dead end low skill jobs we could be paying to train them for more productive and higher paying roles so they don’t remain cashiers or warehouse pickers forever.”

            Unfortinately, the best of educational intentions often runs up against the wall of indivituals’ apathy and lack of gumtion, initiative, and imagination. A lot of people just want nothing more than an easy, easy-to-get job that requires little from them. Personal growth is a foreign concept to them.

            If people, for any reason, don’t want to grow and improve their skills, marketability, and their very selves, then they’ve taken themselves out of the running for almost anything, not just employment and wages.

            Hustling matters…

  13. Al the Great and Powerful

    Some people work in dead end low paying jobs while they do other stuff in their lives.

    All my cashier experience was working in bookstores, while I went to grad school. Many of the Borders staff in stores I worked at were working at Borders as a second job (my wife was one of those).

    My sister worked as a waitress (including the register) while she went to college, my brother was a dishwasher while he worked on his undergrad, then a Borders employee while he worked on his M.A., and my friend was a bartender while working his way to a Masters in Engineering.

    Al the former dead-end job guy

    • "James F. Brown

      @ Al TGAP

      Yes, and all those people you mention had higher ambitions and were taking steps to achieve them.

      Sadly, others are human slugs and cede any responsibility for their lives to other entities. And they are, in the long run, doomed to disappointment. Nobody is going to care more about your life than you yourself. It’s just the way the Universe works.

  14. Al the Great and Powerful

    My grandma worked a crappy dead end job most of her life. It paid, and when she left work every day she left the job behind and got on with her life. The job was there to pay the bills, but her life took place away from work. That’s an acceptable reason to work, too.

    Some folks prefer to work jobs they love, but it isn’t the reality or the desire of every worker, and disparaging those who don’t love their job is a jerk move.

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