Published in El Pais, 4 December 2018.
Automation has been talked about by many people lately (myself included) as many fear it will cost thousands of jobs. We are already seeing it in factories and in both Canada and the US we are starting to see it affect the retail sector as well. Many stores like McDonald’s and Walmart are replacing traditional cashiers with automated checkouts where the customer scans everything themselves and the computer screen tells them how much they owe. In my local grocery store there are 8 of them with one cashier monitoring the situation to aid when needed and prevent theft. Simple math tells us that a total of 7 jobs being lost to machines in that store alone. However, if you investigate a little further you will find not everything is running so smoothly as many are outright rejecting them. Proof that there is such a thing as too much automation.
Some are refusing to use them out of principle, they don’t want the cashiers to lose their jobs but mostly the reason is simply the machines have so many problems that customers find the experience stressful and inconvenient. There are continual breakdowns and unlike humans machines have a harder time dealing with unique situations, often forcing you to wait for the one cashier on hand to help you, that is after that person is done helping the other people ahead of you. The result is often many opt for the more traditional method with a human cashier which forces the store to keep almost the same number of employees before they purchased the machines.
What makes this situation sort of funny is that stores are saying this move towards automation is for our benefit not for theirs, these machines will make shopping way more convenient for us and the last thing on their mind is to save labour costs. So, to summarize, stores are not saving money and customers are unhappy, leaving many to ask, “What’s the point?”,
Unfortunately, retail stores are not giving up on automation as more and more research and development is going into this technology and it is likely inevitable that it will start to make its way to developing countries as well, but stores should be more conscience when making this decision. Retail often requires a higher level of service that robots simply cannot provide. These automated cashiers may save you a few bucks in in the short run, but what good will it do you if people stop shopping in your store.