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Taking humans out of the supermarket checkout

Retail is getting more and more "robotified," and where it's most evident is the self checkout kiosks at supermarkets. Retail clerks are finding themselves displaced by the machines.

Jeremy Hobson: This week here at Marketplace, we're looking at how new technology is changing the American workforce. We're calling our series 'Robots Ate My Job.' And to illustrate the issue, David Brancaccio of our Economy 4.0 unit is driving across the country without interacting with a single human being -- just technology.

As for the people who are being replaced by that technology -- well, they're not too happy about it.


Jackie Gitmed: My name is Jackie Gitmed, and I'm a cashier and I've been with Ralph's for over 35 years.

Ashley Schwartz: And my name is Ashley Schwartz and I've been with Ralph's for close to six years.

Gitmed: I've been doing this for over 35 years now, and if I didn't like to be with the people -- my customers -- I would have chosen something else.

Schwartz: I was raised as a grocery baby -- my dad has been with Ralph's for 40, he's going on 43 years I believe?

Gitmed: And I too, my father was in the industry for 50 years, so I'm second-generation, actually third-generation -- my grandmother was a cashier.

Schwartz: I came from a store, a Ralph's store that didn't have self-checkouts and now they do.

Gitmed: They call them robots, each terminal is called a robot.

Schwartz: So when I started working at this store, it was totally new to me.

Gitmed: At first, we were like this is funny, yeah sure, and then it got to be 'wow they want to get rid of us.'

Schwartz: Oh yeah, it's been awful. I didn't really think about it because I was getting such good hours for a while, and now I'm getting, at the most, 32 hours now.

Gitmed: And there's a lot of theft that goes on with these self-checkouts.

Schwartz: I had a woman come through self-checkout and I watched her put stuff in the bag that she hadn't scanned and then when it flagged the weight and I went over to look, she insisted she scanned them. And it was such a fight and I was dealing with four other stations, I had no choice, I just had to clear it.

Gitmed: To them it's worth it, the price of saving labor is worth whatever people take. You know, what happened to people? We need people, we need that contact with people. We really aren't robots.

Schwartz: When I first started, you know, when I first started I could've wanted to stay in this job for my career, I loved it.

Gitmed: I actually went to college and this is what I chose because I could change my schedule if I needed to go to school with my daughter. So people do chose retail, these are not jobs that people chose not to have. And now, I cannot go pick up and go somewhere else. And 51 years old, quite frankly, no one's going to want to hire me.

Schwartz: You know before this was a good job, it was OK to stay, but now it makes me want to get out of this industry because you don't know what the future holds.


HOST: Lots more on robots and the American workforce in the series, Robots Ate My Job, including a great video about the hidden robots that are all around us.

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@mediasavvy: I'm actually grateful for the availability of online learning; were it not available, I wouldn't have been able to take a free online class from Stanford, and learn about how to implement machine learning algorithms from Professor Andrew Ng.

Yes, you read that right: I took a class on how to make machines /smarter/. Why? Because I am a software developer; my career depends upon keeping my skills up-to-date and useful for potential employers.

Last October, while I was in the middle of taking that course, I quit a well-paying job as a software developer, due to various issues at my former employer. Less than a week later, I had a new, better paying job doing software development for another employer. To this day, I still get calls from recruiters, offering me positions in software development, or asking if I know of anyone else who would be interested.

Want to know where the well paying jobs are? They are in IT, particularly software development - especially if you have experience or knowledge in machine learning and artificial intelligence. We've known such jobs were going to be "the future"; I remember as a kid people at Detroit automobile manufacturers moaning and lamenting over the fact that their job was "going to a robot". Well, for the most part, it did.

I'm sure some went ahead and updated their skills, and maybe they are repairing those robots, or maybe they are programming them. But I am sure there was another percentage who kept moaning and lamenting, instead of taking the time to adjust and improve their skills, and more importantly, insisting that their kids improve their skills.

Even then, I knew I wanted to work with computers and robotics; while I have yet to work with robotics professionally, I am a professional software developer, and I develop robotics systems as a hobby.

The future is today: Welcome to the 21st century...

I never use the automated check-out lines or automated payment systems, precisely because they are job killing ideas.

While you are on the subject of 'robots killed my job', you really aught to pay attention to distance learning schemes and software driven education. These ideas were promoted in the mid-1990's by the Rand - with promises that did not prove to be true - precisely because they offered colleges the opportunity to radically expand the number of students taught, while sparing the schools having to hire more teachers. Combined with the shift to adjunct teaching at starvation wages (you can teach full-time and not make 20,000), this approach to the college teaching profession destroyed it for all but the alumni of elite schools.

Not only were jobs destroyed, but the implementation costs sometimes gutted the school's budgets. Needless to say, the quality of the education was laughable to everyone but the poor kids who went into debt for a useless education. But that was the point of the exercise, wasn't it?

Granted I am an impatient person, but when I take the time to actually travel to a brick-and-mortar store I expect to be able to deal with a human. If they care so little about their customers that I can’t get assistance, there are plenty of alternatives, including online from my desk. I have already stopped shopping at two stores that went to automatic checkout (with no alternative); I will not check back to see if they reverse their decision, and will continue to eliminate any others who cut costs at the customers' expense. I also have stopped shopping at Walmart, because (among many other annoyances) they are always overcrowded and understaffed.

I've wondered what clerks think about self-checkout. As a customer, I think I'm being rooked by the store. Trying to get those things to work is a hassle. I'd rather wait in a line to have a clerk check me out. I also avoid stores that claim to be saving you money by making you sack your own groceries.

I have to agree that in many cases, businesses are removing the robot checkouts and replacing them with manned stations although my local WalMart still seriously under staffs them resulting in long lines. I guess it's a matter of achieving a balance between staff level and how long will a customer wait in line before just leaving (and I have done that at times).
As far as the general adoption of technology is concerned though, I do worry about it. Whilst there is no doubt that in many instances technology can be beneficial in reducing things like power consumption and that using automation to make many of the products we use today can reduce production costs and thus retail price, the adoption of such technology replaces real people. That means fewer people working and thus less real money in the economy that can be spent.
The government talks about stimulating the economy but what that really means is getting consumers to spend. How can you do that when more and more people are out of work because their job has been replaced by a machine?
I believe that there will come a time when the replacement of people by technology will reach a point that the current economic model becomes unworkable. It relies on people having money to spend. Without that it cannot continue to function.
Technology, like any tool should be used to help us, not replace us. It would seem to me that somewhere along the line we lost sight of that and that we as a society now seem to be engaged in a scenario from an early Star Trek episode. If this were a TV show, a Star Ship will visit us soon and it's captain and crew will help us to see the error of or ways and set us on the right track to a balanced ond caring society. Well, it's a nice thought anyway!

I love your comment about the current economic model. I am frequently amazed at how often economic advantage is cited as the reason for these robotic retrofits. What nobody but you and maybe me seems to understand is that people are not wage and healthcare leeches, but actually cogs in the wheels that make the national economy turn smoothly. A robot does not buy new shoes for his robochild or a new car for his robofamily. The savings a business realizes are very shortsighted.

What an interesting and fascinating story. Too bad it ‘s not really supported by the facts. Yes - retailers have experimented with automated, robotic if you must, check out lanes - the supermarket industry and home improvement centers in particular. Usually, the retailer finds that one attendant can monitor four check out stations, a nice labor savings. However, there are some problems with actually focusing the customers to these lanes, ie: no reward for use and, retailers, rather than expanding the program are in fact, either standing pat at the current level or, in some cases, eliminating the automated check out lanes completely and returning to the standard employee run register lane.

You can lose your job in a lot of ways and technology will always put pressure on low skill / no skill positions - see pumping auto gas as a great example, but don’t expect to see widespread adoption of register lane robots and what few jobs that are displaced, only move deeper in the store at wine and cheese kiosks, hot meal in store services and so on.

Actually more and more higher skill/higher pay jobs are being targeted by robotic or computer scanners, tabulators and in some places computer algorithims are being developed to analyze mammograms, CAT scans, thus replacing a human.

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