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Will tablets replace waitresses and store clerks?

A portable tablet computer for customers to order food and drinks sits on a table at Bolt Burgers in Washington, DC, February 25, 2014. 

We’ve seen this pattern before, everywhere from elevator operators to ATMs: Technology takes jobs. So what about tablets? Sales are skyrocketing. Does that mean an equivalent dip in work for humans?

If you’re a retailer, Joe Skorupa, editor in chief of Retail Info Systems News, points out that you actually have to buy equipment, and expensive equipment at that, to allow you to take money from customers. In other words, it takes money to make money.

“For every cash wrap station in a store, you have to have a table scanner which is built into the table and is fixed. You have to have a mobile scanner that’s handheld. You have to have a printer,” he says.

Registers cost a lot of cash. Between $1,500 and $2,000 each, says Skorupa. But he says there’s a cheaper way.

Tablets and other new mobile technology can run credit cards, display menus, and they’re only about $500 each. Skorupa calls them a Swiss army knife of digital capability. So there’s an understandable concern – why pay a human cashier every day, when you can pay for a tablet, once?

But even though the Apple store doesn’t have a cash register in sight, and is the birthplace of the tablet, it still seems to be swarming with sales people.

“I don’t think we can say that it’s taking jobs away,” says Dan Shey, a practice director with ABI Research.

Mobile technology, like tablets, says Shey, allow employees to be more flexible. Like the roving workers at the Apple store – they could potentially stock shelves, answer questions, or take your payment.

“Certainly if you have a product in your hand you’re going to see more sales associates approaching you,” he says, “so you can buy that product as soon as possible.”

Retailers are worried – if you see a long line, or can’t find a register, you might just leave the store, and take your money with you. Shey says tablet sales are growing fast. Last year, 160 million were shipped around the world. But tablets don’t always mean more efficiency.

Dacotah Rousseau and her husband own Flute, a chain of Champagne bars in Manhattan. She says she tried to embrace tablets, but they didn't return her love. Her bar sells, and occasionally spills, liquids. And of course, the occasional table gets knocked over. All of which can be tough on electronics.

“If you’ve ever dropped a cell phone,” says Rousseau, “it can be pretty catastrophic and it’s the same thing.”

Another problem - Wi-Fi can be spotty at her bar which mean processing payments can take a while.

“It would go down and we couldn’t run credit cards,” says Rousseau, “and when people want to get their check and leave, they want to get their check and leave. It’s something that they will go on Yelp and complain about the next day -- if it took 20 minutes to get a check, or to pay their bill.”

Rousseau says she was hoping to put her menus on tablets. But she says she’s not sure how well tablet menus would work. Something she discovered recently when she and her husband were out to dinner.

“If you have one tablet at a table only one person at a table can browse the menu at a time. And very often there is one tablet, they’re expensive, and you don’t hand one to every customer. The days when you handed a menu to the man at the table and he ordered for everyone, that’s over.”

Joe Skorupa says while we might not see a change yet, ultimately tablets will mean less human employees who are paid more for more skills. But Dacotah Rousseau says, her employees, do not have to worry about electronic competition, at least not any time in the foreseeable future. There are she notes, still a lot of issues that need to be worked out before tablets will work for her workplace, such as protecting them from theft.

“You would not believe the things that people take as souvenirs,” she says. “It’s amazing to me – they steal silverware, they steal printed menus, they steal pictures off the walls in the bathrooms. People will take anything as a souvenir.”

Did any of her tablets get stolen?

“I don’t know,” she muses. “I kind of wish they were. At least somebody would be using them.”

About the author

Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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