Are store cashiers the next disappearing job?

I don’t usually use the self-service checkout at the hardware or grocery stores and it’s not because I don’t know how. It’s because I want people to have jobs.

Today’s video from Amazon is a little frightening, suggesting that the inevitable march of technology isn’t going to stop because somebody wants checkout people to have jobs.

The Amazon Go store is being tested in Seattle. Walk in, take what you need, and pay automatically. Who needs humans?

No doubt there are plenty of reasons why this is a great idea. Perhaps the humans pulled off the checkout could do something else in the store. Pretty slick. And yet, the future is scary.

Many of the jobs that “left” the United States — and issue that propelled a new president into office — aren’t coming back because they don’t exist anymore. Anywhere. They’ve been replaced by automation.

“The human beings are really a positive part of the experience,” Roger McNamee, co-founder of technology investment firm Elevation Partners, told CNBC today. “I don’t expect this to take over the world. It just doesn’t seem like an earth-shattering thing.”

Quartz isn’t so sure.

There are roughly 3.4 million people employed as cashiers in the US, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). There are a further 4.5 million employed as retail salespeople, and 2.4 million employed as laborers that restock and move cargo around. Amazon already uses robots in its warehouses to move cargo around and bring items to humans to prepare for shipping. It’s also working on creating robots that can scan shelves for items and prepare those goods for shipping themselves. Reverse that process and those same robots could theoretically be used to restock the shelves of an Amazon Go store. In the near future, a store like this could potentially be run almost entirely without humans, barring those employed to prepare the food—although even that could one day be automated.

Steve Cousins, a computer scientist, writes on Tech Crunch, however, that the fear, illustrated in a recent article that said 7 percent of all jobs in the U.S. will disappear via technology, ignores historical fact that technology that eliminates jobs also creates them.

A lot of data supports the fact that technological advances actually create jobs — eliminating dull and low-skill occupations, while simultaneously creating entirely new categories of work. A study of census data in England and Wales since 1871 found technology created far more jobs than it destroyed during that 140-year period. “Machines will take on more repetitive and laborious tasks, but seem no closer to eliminating the need for human labor than at any time in the last 150 years,” says the report, authored by Deloitte.

Another 2015 study from London’s Center for Economic Research shows the use of robots increases productivity and wages, while having no negative impact on overall employment. According to the study, the contribution of robots to the aggregate economy has, so far, been about the same as other important technologies in history, such as railroads and U.S. highways. In any case, robots normally don’t replace entire “jobs” but instead take over “tasks” — such as hauling goods, operating machines or providing information. When companies use robots to complete repetitive or dangerous tasks, it frees employees to do more interesting, valuable work.

“As robots take over mundane tasks, humans can rise into more fulfilling jobs as operators of these machines,” he insists.

  • Matt Black
    • Bob Sinclair

      Knowing that Albertsons bought Safeway, I found it interesting the other day to see that the self-serve lanes had been removed. They’ve installed “newer/faster” machines that the cashiers now operate. It will be interesting to see how that works out.

    • MikeB

      Costco eliminated their self serve lanes because too many people “forgot” to scan some items while checking out.

      • Tim

        Costco (or at least the one I go to) has extremely efficient checkout lanes. I don’t think most people could check themselves out as fast as the cashiers there can. Having two people per lane (one to scan, the other to handle the merchandise) helps a lot too. They’re a company that is smart about where to have employees in the store in a way that best helps their customers.

    • Joe

      Well in the best case scenario, there would be enough other jobs created that high school students would still have jobs, they would just be more intellectually stimulating jobs than stocking shelves.

      I mean if the above articles are right that robots create more jobs than they eliminate, someone will have to do those jobs.

  • Sam M

    Quick service restaurants are aggressively working with hardware and software companies to get this done. The technology is out there just a matter of how to roll it out and making sure it’s priced right and durable.

    Technology kills more jobs than treaties despite what Trump and anti-treaty people like to tell you.

  • BNelson

    Sorry, Bob, I usually agree with your sentiments, but I think you’re off-base here. This mentality would suggest that we should reject new technology in order to keep soon-to-be-outdated jobs. Should we reject modern phone technology just to keep switchboard operators employed? What about chimney sweeps? Or bowling-pin setters?

    The fact is, this transition is probably inevitable. Yes, it will make it hard for people who need and hold those jobs NOW, but it’s naive to think that we can avoid upsetting anyone while keeping a thriving and growing economy. I’m a soft-hearted liberal, but try to be a pragmatist. We can’t all be Luddites. Transitions are hard, but technology marches on. Maybe instead of resisting it, we should find a better way to address it and ensure all those cashiers can find training to do another job.

    • Ennio S.

      There’s an automated chimney sweeper? 🙂 Is it made by iRobot?

      • Rob

        It’s Roomba’s sister, Brickie.

    • I didn’t say YOU had to avoid self seves. I just said *I* do.

      Believe me, once I hear that free training for better jobs is available for the cashiers I go to, I’ll be happy to scan the stuff myself

    • DavidP

      I’m of the school that faster and cheaper isn’t always better.
      Too often there are grave societal costs left out of the equation. Costs like job loss, health care coverage loss and loss of home.
      I always use staffed checkouts when possible. Bonus – It gives me a chance to say hello to another human being.

      • Jack

        Going to the store is a social event for me. I have made a point to get to know the staff – to the point that I have already apologized to the pharmacist that I am required by the medical plan to use the big box pharmacy next year.

        I knew that I made an impression on one employee when they made a point of telling me that they were (1) getting married, and (2) getting a new job. I still see him shopping at the store but now I can’t ask him if they have more in the back room of what ever is empty on the shelf.

    • Dan

      We still totally need chimney sweeps, I’m not sure how you think those things get cleaned nowadays. They don’t have godawful fake cockney accents, no, but they are still technically chimney sweeps.

    • Rob

      I think we are a society in love with the bright shiny technology object.
      Just because something can be automated doesn’t mean it has to be. And when the economic cost/benefit analysis starts to factor in external costs – such as the expense of helping displaced workers get decent replacement jobs, I’ll be a lot more comfortable with this love affair we seem to have with technology for technology’s sake.

  • Will

    Yes, I saw this story and this is where we’re going as a society. This is a very good thing, we will be more efficient and menial jobs will go away…we need more training to give people access to this new economy. We should not attempt to halt progress like the Luddites, we should embrace it and enable people to adapt to it.

    • Rob

      Sounds good, but I think the investment required to provide the training and other support would be so massive that it would take a government in which the Dems control all three branches to push such an initiative through. Kind of a New Deal 2.0

      • Will

        Why didn’t they get it done in 2008? It wasn’t a high priority I guess… I’d like to see private sector education programs appear to fill this niche.

        • Rob

          Don’t hold your breath.

        • tboom

          Private sector put money into education … you’re such an idealist.

  • jon

    Scott Meyers said he had a particular job because he was “Smarter than a monkey and Cheaper than a robot.”

    Robots are getting cheaper and people in developed countries are getting more expensive, there is a threshold where the line has been crossed, and millions of people are going to have a tough time of things for a while… perhaps even myself.

    The real issue isn’t the loss of service jobs, or the loss of even the loss of cubical jobs, it’s the rise in jobs that can be worked remotely… outsourcing will move all the jobs from places where labor is expensive to places where it is cheap… the good news (I hope) is that automation should make living in expensive places cheaper… though it could also just funnel more money to a few people and corporations…

    • Rob

      Yup.

  • fromthesidelines21

    I use the self checkout as Walmart all the time. Mostly because even though they built the store with over 15 lanes only two or three are staffed. Additionally they don’t seem to invest much in training so the service from a live person is not very good. Self checkout is quick. Now give me a touch screen in the drive though to place my order and pay I’ll be really happy.

    On the other hand I do worry about what low skill and new workers are supposed to do. Guaranteed basic income? http://freakonomics.com/podcast/mincome/

    • Rob

      This is an excellent point, IMHO. The looming robotocracy may provide jobs for folks from MIT and Carnegie Mellon to plan the algorithms and keep the automated systems going, but it won’t provide squat for folks without the necessary training or education background to make the transition. And if past performance is an indicator, I don’t see the grocery industry or private trucking firms investing much in helping the displaced. So maybe GBI’s time is indeed drawing nigh.

  • Mike Worcester

    One can already see the results at big box stores as many of the staffable registers remain quiet, shunting folks to the self-registers (unless they want to wait in even longer lines) where one person can cover four at a time.

    • Will

      I always wonder why they only have 4 automatic check out lanes when only 2-3 of the traditional check out lanes are even being used at the grocery store. Shouldn’t they invert those numbers? Or at least have a dozen self check out lanes and move people through faster.

  • Gary F

    Wendy’s and McDonald’s are already putting in kiosks to order and pay for food at locations where the $15 an hour mandatory wage goes into affect.

    I sometimes use the self checkout at the grocery store or home depot, but only when the lines are long at the regular checkout. I’d rather have a person there.

    • Tim

      Labor shortages are probably a much larger driver of that than minimum wage, at least in the cities where those laws exist (or are in the works).

      • Sam M

        No, it’s the rate. They are making pennies on a sandwich.

        • They can put one of these at the drive-thru anytime, please, so i don’t have to lsiten to that speaker that makes everyone sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher.

          • Sam M

            I like when they forget to turn off their microphone and I hear them yell at another employee… thoroughly entertaining:)

          • Negin

            I know this thread is old now, but the drive-thru comment of a song called Fast Food that used to be played on Dr. Demento.

        • Tim

          That’s interesting. I know this isn’t the case everywhere, but around here, it seems like every one of these places is hiring. I would think that lack of staff, and thus reduced ability to serve customers, would be a bigger hit to the bottom line.

          • Sam M

            That is probably more of a function of high turnover which is another argument for technology saving you money and a cost that is often overlooked.

            Many places advertise openings even if they are full staffed.

    • Dan

      If the reason was a $15 minimum wage, why do we see kiosks in areas with a $7.25 minimum wage?

      Perhaps filtering everything through a lens of black-and-white current political events is preventing you from seeing things clearly?

      Also, “effect”.

      • Sam M

        The higher minimum wages motivated them to pursue the kiosk option.

        I worked in the QSR technology space and heard directly from operators that this was the case.

        Not political just business. Snark not needed.

        • I assume labor is a major expense for companies even at $7.50. I would think the opportunity to eliminate entirely would be attractive. You can still pad the bottom line by getting rid of $7.50 an hour workers.

          • Sam M

            Yes and that increase in the minimum wage doesn’t just affect those making minimum. You have a pay scale that you must adjust all the way up for those front line workers including managers and DM’s. That is a cost people don’t think about when they do the total impact math.

          • Jack

            Don’t need as many managers with less staff.

          • Sam M

            Yep so lots of savings….

        • MikeB

          Technology investments would proceed regardless of minimum wage. Labor is a large expense, they are always looking for ways to reduce labor.

          • Sam M

            Correct but an IT group can make a better argument when they know that labor costs are going to go up $250k a year unless they do something drastic like making an investment in technology.

        • Dan

          Minimum wages have gone up almost nowhere, and as you should well know these types of products take years to develop. Once iPads became a thing kiosks were inevitable. Side benefit people spend more per ticket. Panera in Roseville has had an ordering kiosk for some time, absolutely nothing to do with the minimum wage. You hearing some franchisees grouse doesn’t change that.

          • Sam M

            We just had an increase here and there have been plenty of other places too.

            It wasn’t just franchisees it was corporate. It was also a major talking point at the trade shows and I’ve seen multiple articles. I also work for a local large retailer.

            The technology is here already.

          • Dan

            The technology is here because it was developed, and it wasn’t developed as an effect of Seattle getting $15/hr this April. Sure anxiety around wages makes for great marketing, and I’m not claiming it has zero effect in moving the needle on adoption, maybe moving it up a few months vs. the effect of < 5% unemployment alone. But fast food joints aren't just deciding to put these in where the minimum is $15, that's the context from the original post that you're missing. Not that I support a $15/hr minimum wage. It's that this was always going to happen regardless, more or less on the same timeline. That 'conservatism' apparently means taking time from your day to gloat over low wage workers having a worse future is a separate thing.

          • Sam M

            I wouldn’t agree that it only moved it up a couple of months. These capital budgets are planned and approved years in advance and need to get a lot of approvals. That increase in cost savings will put projects like this in the front of the line when it comes to increases in EBITDA.

            They put it in places where there isn’t a $15 minimum wage because it will obviously save money there too and you can also be spreading any fixed cost across more locations.

            In the franchise world most of the time it’s not the franchisee making the decision to install but coming from the corporate headquarters.

          • Dan

            Yes — they save money where there *isn’t* a $15/hr wage, and it’s capex everywhere. It’s a good deal for the fast food industry. Whether people should be fighting to accept poverty wages for low skill jobs to try to stave off technological advancements for a few month – or a few quarters – is another question. It should be noted the kiosks aren’t replacing the need for employees entirely, but like with manufacturing, there will be fewer and fewer of these types of jobs.

            I would have thought franchisees had more control over their stores, I’ll defer to you, I don’t work in the fast food industry. At the behest of a recruiter, I did interview once at a place that made cloud-based pos and store management software. It was very cool technology, but I kind of felt it would have been like working for a place that makes cigarette cartons.

          • Sam M

            I agree it doesn’t mean people should stop fighting necessarily for an increase in minimum wage. It doesn’t hurt to be mindful of what some of the repercussions can be for a more expensive workforce.

            Each franchise brand is different but I do see from a technology standpoint most concepts try to standardize IT as much as possible.

          • Dan

            I guess that’s where we’re diverging. The workforce, historically, isn’t all that expensive, and even if it were getting cheaper as opposed to more expensive, to the point where employees couldn’t support an even lower standard of living, this technology was coming anyway. “The robots are coming unless you shut up and work for less” is a red herring, the robots are coming anyway.

          • Tim

            How many places around here are actually paying minimum wage, though, these days? At least around here (and in other big cities), the market rate is way higher. For example, the Hobby Lobby that just opened by me pays $15/hr starting (plus benefits) for full time staff. They simply have to if they want to get good workers. It’s not necessarily minimum wage laws that are driving up payrolls; it’s often the market. I work with retailers myself, and getting good talent has been a struggle for them as the economy has improved.

          • Sam M

            C-Stores and QSR’s pay minimum wage initially. They also increase the rate after time of service milestones are met.

    • Rob

      But if the people in the place you’re patronizing are making $15/hr, I would think you’d show your displeasure by taking your business to a place where the workers are paid subsistence wages…

    • Veronica

      The handful of times I’ve used a kiosk to order food it was slower than even standing in line to order from a human. It’s universally awful.

      Right now it’s getting obvious who isn’t paying workers–the stores are miserable and dirty, checkout lines are long as hell, food service is slow and orders are wrong. It’s the one time market forces come into play—the places that become miserable for the consumers lose market share. *cough* WalMart *cough*

  • MarkUp

    The self checkout line: where your customers become your unpaid employees.

    In a related case, why haven’t ATM’s replaced bank tellers?

    • Jack Ungerleider

      I’ll take this one, it may be relevant to someplace like Home Depot more than Cub Foods (but maybe not). Thirtysome years ago I went to work for a company that made trade show and museum exhibits. One of the salesman had picked up a job from one of the big banks in Philadelphia, we were located in NJ just north of Camden. The bank wanted us to make a device that would simulate the interactions a customer would have with an ATM machine. At that point they had hit a wall at around 30% utilization. They wanted to try and flip the numbers. Why? So they could lay off tellers? No. They wanted to have the tellers doing transaction that had more “value-added”. It was more cost effective to have the tellers handling transactions for the bankers, load agents, etc. These were more complex and needed a human being to perform them. If all you wanted was to deposit your paycheck or make a withdrawal from your savings account that was an inefficient and ineffective use of the trained tellers time. As supermarkets add buying services to their list of options (Instacart I think its called), I’d rather have someone walking the store pulling a customers order from the shelves and processing that order than standing around waiting for the next customer. As a customer I appreciate the ability to check myself out if I stop in and grab a few items and want to get out quickly.

      If your gas station has a full service option do you use that also?

      • MarkUp

        I did some private investigating online this evening. The number of bank tellers actually increased, but not because they were doing more complex tasks; there were just more bank branches.

        From this source:
        http://www.aei.org/publication/what-atms-bank-tellers-rise-robots-and-jobs/
        “Well, the average bank branch in an urban area required about 21 tellers. That was cut because of the ATM machine to about 13 tellers. But that meant it was cheaper to operate a branch. Well, banks wanted, in part because of deregulation but just for deregulation but just for basic marketing reasons, to increase the number of branch offices. And when it became cheaper to do so, demand for branch offices increased. And as a result, demand for bank tellers increased.”

        //I’d rather have someone walking the store pulling a customers order from the shelves and processing that order
        You need to watch the video. Amazon plans to make YOU that someone.

        I’ve never used full service gas stations because I didn’t know they still exist in MN. Maybe some day I’ll treat myself.

        • Jack Ungerleider

          My comment about the Bank Tellers is what the bank we were doing work for in 1984 told us. I’m sure things have changed many times since then.

          As far as the shop-for-you service at the super market, that’s something that they’ve added to compete with the delivery services. I stand by that comment. It’s better for the store to have someone “buying” the merchandise for a customer than standing around waiting for someone with a small order to check out.

      • Jack

        I can’t remember the last time that I checked in at the ticket counter at the airport. It’s been self check-in for years.

        Only use the travel agency at work, never at home.

  • Kassie

    I was asked to use the self service lane at Byerly’s last weekend. I ended up using more of the cashier’s time than if I would have just gone though a normal line. First, I had 20 lemons, which meant needing help to get them to all stay on the scale at once. Then I had some things that wouldn’t register that I put them in my bag. Then I got an “unauthorized item in bagging area” message. I knew I was a terrible candidate with that purchase to go through self-service, but they really, really wanted me to…

    • Dan

      Well you know what they say, when life gives you 20 lemons…

      • Jeff C.

        …add vodka!

        • KTN

          We’ve got a batch of limoncello brewing in the basement as I type. Mmm, can’t wait till its done in another month.

          • Kassie

            That is exactly why I had 20 lemons. We’ve got limoncello brewing on the counter right now. (Also made fruit cakes and vanilla extract this weekend.)

          • Rob

            Fruit cakes with vodka? Yum

          • tboom

            Yum so long as you throw out the fruit cakes!

          • Rob

            Good point!

    • Rob

      Right? I’m old-school all the way when it comes to checking out at the big box grocery store.

    • rallysocks

      This is ALWAYS my experience in the self-checkout. It’s definitely less of a PIA for cashiers to ring up my items instead of coming over to the self-check out station I have screwed up numerous times.

    • DavidG

      just put the lemons on the scale one at a time

  • Ben

    Self-service checkout is only fast if you have a small number of items, so people with many items really need a cashier. I think if self-serve checkout was so cheap and great for stores there would be way more of those lanes.

    I think up to now, it’s a wash. We used to always talk with a particular Target cashier who was really personable and fun to talk to. I’m sure he has moved on to bigger and better things. On the other hand, I also like to use the self-service lane sometimes if I have some less than flattering items to purchase. Not for me of course, for somebody else.

    • Jack Ungerleider

      I think in most store that I’ve seen the self-service lanes replaced the Express Lanes. I suspect because not enough traffic through the Express Lane (10 or 15 items or less) to justify paying the clerk so you staff the normal lanes and the person with 3 items ends up behind someone with a full cart and gets frustrated and leaves not buying anything. (including not coming back when they need a larger order.)

  • Rich in Duluth

    There was a story on 60-Minutes, last night regarding three counties in Mississippi that are aggressively going after manufacturing jobs, together. They are having success. However, they told of a new plant that melts scrap metal down to bulk steel. If I remember correctly, they said that the old technology, for this plant, would have employed 4,000 people. The new plant employs robots, computers and about 600 people. While that is 600 more jobs than they had before, that ‘s a long way from 4,000. I think they said the new jobs pay around 50-grand a year and local tech schools are training new workers for specific jobs at the plant.

    I can imagine robots taking over almost any job. I was a draftsman/engineering technician for almost 50 years. When I retired, the company I worked for did not replace my position…well, they did, but the engineers, who I drafted for, are now doing they’re own drafting on a computer with design software. The same applied to our survey crew. When I started at the company in the early 70s, there was a 3-4 man survey crew. When I left, the survey crew was a part time guy and a robot data collector. If an engineering/design firm can change that much, what other industry would be immune from such changes?

    It seems to me that we should be preparing for that time, when work is no longer required. It’s certainly off in the future, but I think that some day the capitalist, work for a paycheck, system will not exist. If no one has to work, we’re going to have to figure out a whole new way to live.

  • Matthew

    Most of the self-checkout stations I see in the Twin Cities (Target, Cub, etc) have it so you have to immediately bag each item in the plastic bags or your own bags. Usually a frustrating experience if I have more than a half-dozen (or larger) items.

    When I lived in Pittsburgh my local grocery store (Giant Eagle) installed a couple of special self-checkout lanes that were more like a hybrid between the immediate-bagging lane and a normal cashiered lane, where you scanned each item and then put it on a belt, and then bag everything at the end. They had some sort of optical sensor midway down the belt to watch each item go by (and maybe also weight sensors). It was absolutely faster for my wife and I to check out our groceries that way, one person scanning and placing on belt, the other grabbing items from the other end of the belt and bagging as we go. Seriously quicker than a cashier, even when you include time to look up the produce codes since we haven’t memorized them all. I only wish that those lanes were limited to a special club of super shoppers who had proven their expertise on how to use the equipment 🙂 Oddly enough they removed those lanes after a couple years and only had the typical immediate-bagging self-checkouts.

    • DavidG

      Cub foods just added some of the belted self check out stations to my local store, and I’ve seen them in a few other Cub stores around town over the years.

  • kevins

    Good discussion below…I learned a great deal. Thanks.

  • 212944

    Self checkout may be soon replaced by scan-as-you-go …

    http://www.npr.org/2016/10/20/498736760/self-checkout-could-soon-be-checking-out

    And a much longer feature about self checkout andd why it “still sucks”:

    http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2016/10/19/498571623/episode-730-self-checkout

  • lobd

    A great book on this subject is “Rise of the Robots” by Martin Ford. It actually has been causing me insomnia, so I recommend reading it during the daytime so you can digest the information. The economy is changing.

  • Tyler

    This speaks to a larger trend of technology and artificial intelligence negating a LOT of jobs in the near future. For example, the rise of the electric car will put lots of mechanics out of business (lots fewer moving parts, less involved maintenance schedule). Another example is autonomous driving. I’m not saying that AI will kick every trucker and driver out from behind the steering wheel, but even if the need for commercial drivers drops 50%, that’s at least 1.5 million people without a job.

    Technology, automation, and AI are going to crank up unemployment in the next 20 years. You think this election had a lot to do with populism? Just wait.