Will Robots Check You Out of a Job?

The Guardian has a new article on the robopocalypse: End of the checkout line: the looming crisis for American cashiers. What are they claiming?

Arobo-checkout recent analysis by Cornerstone Capital Group suggests that 7.5m retail jobs – the most common type of job in the country – are at “high risk of computerization”, with the 3.5m cashiers likely to be particularly hard hit. Another report, by McKinsey, suggests that a new generation of high tech grocery stores that automatically charge customers for the goods they take – no check-out required – and use robots for inventory and stocking could reduce the number of labor hours needed by nearly two-thirds. It all translates into millions of Americans’ jobs under threat.

The Cornerstone analysis attributes downward price pressure on competition from online retailers like Amazon, and rising costs on governments increasing minimum wages. McKinsey’s report is far more bullish, predicting improvements in productivity due to automation may surpass those brought about by the industrial revolution, advanced manufacturing and information technology combined. It claims that only 5% of jobs are currently fully automatable.

For all Donald Trump’s talk about the raw deal that has been visited on American workers, he rarely mentions people [in retail].

Trump used his nationalist message of bringing back manufacturing jobs to entice working people in the rust belt to vote for him. Since retail jobs weren’t lost to other countries, that message doesn’t apply to them.

The public debate about jobs in the US has been dominated by Trump’s fixation with a particular vision of masculine, blue collar employment: a white man in a hard hat, mining coal in Appalachia or clocking hours on an assembly line in the industrial midwest.

Who says those jobs are masculine? This sounds like sexism to me.

According to the Cornerstone report, 73% of cashiers are women. And an analysis of retail workers by Demos found that black people and Latinos are overrepresented in the cashier positions, which are the lowest paid.

To what should we attribute this?

Seattle offers a glimpse of the store of the future. Amazon’s experimental convenience store in the city has eliminated the entire checkout process – erasing the need for cashiers. Customers at Amazon Go just grab what they want and walk out, with charges automatically sent to their Amazon Prime accounts.

I’m not a fan of the current robot checkouts, but if they can make them reliable, this sounds great. I don’t see them eliminating the grocer, the butcher, the deli worker, or some level of customer service any time soon. How do they deal with things that are sold by weight? Are fruits and vegetables implanted with RFID chips?

A spokesperson for Amazon said in a statement that the company had “no plans” to use its Amazon Go technology to get rid of cashiers at the 465 Whole Foods stores it just acquired. But the Cornerstone analysis noted that airlines and banks made similar assurances about job losses when they introduced check-in kiosks and ATMs respectively; in both industries, employment and wages have declined.

No current plans, perhaps.

The job loss projections have left many retail workers and the union that represents them apprehensive. While Chelsea Connor, spokeswoman for the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), talked optimistically of the “massive boom in jobs in fulfillment and distribution” created by e-commerce, Cohen warned that those jobs were at risk of automation as well.

According to the McKinsey report, most jobs have elements that are automatable. They are more hopeful, believing that instead of eliminating people, many companies will simply become more productive. I don’t think they’re entirely wrong.

“There’s no way to stop it,” said Caleb Kulick, a cashier. “A Target in my town just switched over to self-checkouts, and suddenly a job which used to require four employees now only requires one. My real concern is what is going to replace those jobs, and so far there are no good answers … No politician that I’ve heard of has any answers to these problems.”

Why would you expect a politician to have an answer? Politicians don’t create jobs.

Marc Perronne, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union which represents 1.3 million retail, grocery and food processing workers, said that the organization was working on helping its members go back to school to get high school equivalencies or associate’s degrees, with an eye on technological job displacement.

Very sound.

Brendan Witcher, an e-commerce analyst with Forrester, argued that the checkout-free store remains “a long way off”. He said successful retailers would incorporate technologies that improve customer experiences rather than simply eliminate jobs.

Echoing what McKinsey say in their report.

Customer-oriented tasks, Alexis Lambertis, an organizer with RWDSU, argues, will forestall too many job losses in retail. Lambertis worked for two years at New York City’s Babeland, a sex toy boutique. Babeland is exactly the kind of brick-and-mortar shop that would seem imperiled by the privacy of online shopping. But Lambertis said she frequently served customers who had ordered sex toys online, only to be disappointed.

This makes sense. To survive, brick and mortar shops will have to add value above what online retailers can provide, as will those who work in them. Jobs in markets where people don’t need a lot of customer service will be the first to disappear. Those that require high touch are safe for the foreseeable future.

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About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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One Response to Will Robots Check You Out of a Job?

  1. Pingback: LG’s Robot Horde is About Arrive | Jim's Jumbler

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