Does Amazon’s Newly Opened Cashier-Less Grocery Store Threaten Retail Jobs?

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie January 31, 2018
Does Amazon’s Newly Opened Cashier-Less Grocery Store Threaten Retail Jobs?

Amazon Go is a new kind of store with no checkout required. Customers can just walk out with no checkout or line. Sensors automatically detect purchases. (Seattle, Washington)

​Amazon has opened the first of what may become a string of grocery stores that don't have cashiers or self-checkout machines, which leaves labor groups and HR experts asking if the jobs of America's 3.5 million cashiers are at risk.

To shop in the Amazon Go grocery store in the e-commerce giant's hometown of Seattle, customers scan a code on the Amazon Go app as they enter. Shoppers then collect items, which are charged to their Amazon accounts, and walk out when they are done—no scanning bar codes or swiping credit cards.

It's unclear how this technology will change the workforce. Experts say that industries that face automation often end up adding more employees over time. A Quartz analysis, however, found that Amazon—with its dependence on robots and its appeal to customers who'd rather shop online than at brick-and-mortar stores—is killing more jobs than it is creating. Amazon Go may exacerbate that problem.

"Amazon Go is … eliminating a job that's currently held by more than 3 million Americans," said Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. "Corporations must understand that a functioning society does not exist unless there are jobs for hard-working people to earn a living, support a family and build a better life. We need sustainable jobs; it's that simple. If Amazon can prove these stores are creating sustainable jobs, then we're all ears."

This past summer, Amazon announced plans to purchase the Whole Foods grocery store chain in a deal valued at $13.7 billion.

At the time, an Amazon spokesperson told SHRM Online that "Amazon has no plans to use the technology it developed for Amazon Go to automate the jobs of cashiers at Whole Foods. No job reductions are planned as a result of the deal."

Asked again this past fall if Whole Foods workers might be laid off because of the merger, Whole Foods spokeswoman Rachael Dean Wilson said her company declined to comment.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that growth in the country's retail jobs is sluggish: From 2014 through 2024, the employment of cashiers is expected to grow only 2 percent, while the average for all occupations is projected to rise 7 percent. The number of cashier jobs in the U.S. in 2015 was the same as the number in 2005, even though overall U.S. employment increased by 7.6 million during that period.

"Advances in technology, such as self-service checkout stands in retail stores and increasing online sales, will continue to limit the need for cashiers," the BLS noted on its website.

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Whether grocery customers really want a personal, face-to-face interaction with a cashier may depend on how old they are, said Paul Falcone, author of75 Ways for Managers to Hire, Develop, and Keep Great Employees (Amacom, 2016).    

"Millennials and Gen Zers are likely to respond that they're more comfortable avoiding human interaction and simply relying on their credit card and a scanner to purchase their goods," he said. "Baby Boomers and Gen Xers will likely prefer the human, more social touch."

However, because the businesses' future success lies with the younger generations, Falcone said, the transition to cashier-free retail environments may "continue at a breakneck pace." 

"I suspect that everything from fast food to the post office will continue to shift away from live help to automated processing," he said. "The point of sale in retail stores will come closer and closer to the Internet point-of-sale experience: no human beings, ease of use and swift delivery. It's the end of an era where high school students could always find summer jobs, and return-to-work parents found opportunities to ease back into the workplace."  

Countered Perrone: "Physical retail locations must realize that skilled employees with knowledge are an important part of the product they're offering to customers. The primary value of physical retail shopping is the expertise that experienced people can offer to customers. Even as online sales grow and technology advances, there will always be tremendous value in providing customers with emotional fulfillment. And no one does that better than real people."  

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