Never mind the fact that automation is why we have such wealth and plenty, and why you can spend your time writing Luddite blog posts, instead of hoeing the back forty, desperately hoping for a good harvest, so your family doesn't have to starve this winter.
Sure, the people who used to work as cashiers will have to find something else to do. But the upside, for everyone, is that it becomes cheaper to run a supermarket, and thus competition can give us even cheaper groceries.
If only it were so competitive. But that's spot on, automation will remain a constant at any rate. Whatever the solution to structural unemployment it won't involve hampering innovation.
The shop have found a way to make you do the work they previously paid people to do.
1) I pick out what I want to buy. I give those items to a person, who adds them up and takes my money for them.
2) I pick out what I want to buy. I show them to a machine that totals the price and enables the credit card scanner.
You have automated the process of summing the total prices of my groceries.
The only job that I'm doing is bagging, but that is a completely different job. I already do that work myself because the grocery store usually doesn't have a separate bagger. I pack my own bags even when there is a cashier.
The idea of 'pre-packed food, with a bar-code you have to pick up yourself' - quite a leap from standing at the counter asking the aproned worker to cut, weigh and wrap your piece of cheese.
Then possibly wait for them to open the barrel for your next item etc.
With the traditional arrangement, I'm standing there doing nothing while I watch the cashier. It's kind of boring and the time is lost anyway, so scanning stuff is not necessarily a worse option.
I guess my main concern is really the time it takes to get out of the store. If self-checkout has better throughput, great. I'm saving time and my ice cream is melting less. If it has worse throughput due to badly-designed machines or other customers being clueless and slow, then not great.
On a side note, I feel like a weakness for self-checkout is stuff that is more complicated than scanning. If I buy a lot of produce, I have to figure out the code for lettuce, tomato, etc., which is tedious and slow. A cashier who does this all the time has them memorized, so it's much easier for them.
True automation would be something that actually saves time. It takes me longer to self-checkout than it does for a professional cashier.
The end result is the same, though. Society becomes slightly more efficient, since the time I used to spend waiting for the cashier to scan my goods is now spent productively, and usually the lines get shorter, so I can get my groceries quicker, spending less time overall, even if I have to take active part in the process instead of just standing around.
This is 180 degrees from my experience. Whether it's Home Depot, Safeway, Walmart, Target, etc, the self-checkout lines are always longer and take more time.
The thing is constantly beeping at you or telling you to take things off some weight sensor or another.
It barely takes cash that is not fresh out of the mint and the coin slots are filled with gum.
Since the card machines are different tech than the self-scanners, their interface time is measured in minutes, not seconds. I have to tap a nearly endless amount of buttons to get the chip readers to recognize that my card had been in there the whole time, usually re-inserting twice will work.
Trying to find the exact code for my zucchini takes clicking through pages of touchscreen menus. Each time I'm never sure if the screen has registered my touch, so it can take up to 3 taps to go to the next page, or will just jump two pages, each time taking a few seconds. I know, I know, first world problems, but come on, it's super frustrating.
The scale on the things are never up to calibration. So when I put in my own bags, half the time an attendant must come over to clear the warnings. Even when I don't use my own bags, the scales will report errors and cause the whole thing to go into the warning mode, causing an attendant to come over anyways.
When I want to buy beer or cigarettes or cold medicine, I have to scan it in, scan my drivers license in (Passports?! Ha!), wait for it to ping the attendant, wait for them to come over or finish helping everyone else, and then it takes them up to 3 tries to get their codes in and working (usually it does go the first time, though). It takes forever.
The machines are constantly asking for my rewards card info. It's not a real time waster, but the near endless reminders that I have not yet done so are very annoying.
When it's busy, any one of these issues is happening, and the attendants are rushing everywhere. Anyone with the slightest disability is hosed. Have vision problems? Have hearing problems? Have mobility problems? English not your first language? Have memory problems? It'll take forever and it's super frustrating to not just the old lady in the walker, but the whole line of folks just trying to get dinner on the table.
Look, I'm not going to say that a lot of these issues never come up with an actual cashier. They of course, do. But with a person that has keyed in wheatgrass a million times, it does take a lot less time. When the SNAP card is a bit of a hassle, they know what to do. They already know how to get you past all the alerts for the beer and the cold medicine and actually look at a passport. There's a person there to help grandma with her bagging and groceries and out to the car. Where I live, the people are friendly enough and don't set watermelons on my eggs too often.
Personally, via my anecdata, I vastly prefer the cashiers. Now, if I was a teenager buying my first prophylactics or hygiene products, sure, the machines are WAY better. But for me, I prefer the nice smiles and chit-chat to that dumb machine.
In any case, that the particular implementation you've experienced sucks does not invalidate the concept.
That was probably true 20 years ago, when your time waiting for the cashier to scan your goods was just idle time for you.
But now we've got smartphones with internet access. We can be productive on our phones while we wait. We can manage investments, research things for work, read email, read news, and so on.
I would not be surprised if doing our own manual labor of scanning and bagging groceries is a net loss of efficiency for society, at least for a large fraction of HN's readership when buying more than just a few items.
Theoretically, sure. In practice, it's going to be pretty rare that anyone accomplishes anything of note during those couple of minutes. Especially since you can't just zone out while the cashier is doing his thing, if you're not super rude, you'll probably greet them, and you've gotta listen if they ask you a question, and get ready to pay once they're done.
Many will claim that shoppers are indirectly 'getting paid for it' by either lower grocery prices or annual increase in prices which is less than it would be with the antiquated meat-based checkout system.
If a customer doesn't want or need a checkout clerk, they shouldn't be required to pay for one. Employees are entitled to good working conditions and fair wages, not entitled to unnecessary jobs.
No doubt, Safeway is going to complain about Amazon drone-delivered groceries like poor Borders bitching about Amazon (after killing off thousands of small bookstores).
Generally, I'd say that the biggest change in grocery stories happened in the 1960's, not now.
It's too late for this. Any cost saving in using self-checkout will be transferred to the supermarket, not to customers.
Self-checkouts allow several people to check out a few items at once, leaving the cashiers to deal with those with full carts. They are not inherently evil. It's a good technology (when implemented well with functioning machines...)
I'm all for treating employees with fairness and dignity. But expecting employers to not innovate in a competitive marketplace for the sake of keeping employees doing low-skill work makes no sense.
So... where's the line? Do we demand no automation in order to protect these workers? Or do we demand additional safety nets for these workers and the opportunity for them to improve their skills if they so choose?
One is that we can't keep people stuck doing the same thing as we need to improve productivity for people to see salaries going up.
In the short run, that usually means a given person is taking on more responsibility. So a person starts out as a clerk and is completing X transactions each day, and their wages come out of that value they add. As they become more senior, they take on more advanced roles like management that enable others to complete their jobs, thus adding more value and resulting in higher wages.
But not everyone can go the management route, whereas automation is a way far more people can get higher wages. If that one person can monitor several self-checkout machines, that person is completing several times as many transactions an individual cashier could. That's more value that person is able to add to the business, and thus higher wages for what is largely unskilled labor.
So the second line is whether people who are immediately displaced by automation are able to find jobs elsewhere. And that's a big unknown. So far we've seen automation expand overall economic opportunity, but Past Results Are Not A Guarantee Of Future Performance.
Sure not all technology is progressive but this blinkered approach is exceptionally damaging. Ironically, the people that it's damaging most are the very people he purports to support.
By all means lobby for companies to invest in retraining but stringing out deprecated jobs and giving vulnerable people false hope is just plain mean.
30+ years ago, most offices had a "secretarial pool" - people whose entire job was to take handwritten or dictated material, and type it on a typewriter. Busy professionals would never be expected to do something like this, but not everyone had a dedicated secretary, so a shared pool of people who could type fast made a lot of sense.
Of course, when PCs became commonplace in offices, people started doing their own typing, and the secretarial pool became a thing of the past. I don't recall hearing about a huge issue with unemployed typists, so presumably those people found new jobs, likely more rewarding ones.
I'm sure that the introduction of PCs onto virtualy every desk in an office 20-25 years ago eliminated other positions as well. I don't hear people proposing that we get rid of computers so that those people can all have their jobs back.
I also don't have a very good opinion of grocery store unions, because by the time I was working at the grocery store, the union had caved repeatedly on contracts for new employees, so that the people who had been working there for decades had locked in all the best hours, and full time work and great insurance and a pension, while all the new employees were held to part-time hours with shit benefits and the worst hours, with absolutely no chance of ever moving to full time. This wasn't a case where eventually you'd have seniority and move up to the better contract. You were locked into your tier forever once you were hired.
(I say this as someone who spent several years working as a grocery clerk, checking groceries and stocking shelves, and whose father and grandfather both spent their entire careers working at grocery stores.)
Loads of people say this, and I do too, but it's also important to realize that this basically doesn't happen. Retraining doesn't materially exist and hasn't been shown to work en masse, while the American safety net for unemployment-without-retraining is minimal.
The challenge isn't "finding new work." It's "being suitable for any work." And we still seem to try to avoid grappling with that problem.
This position is ludicrous.
I'm wondering if anyone from outside the US that is familiar with their labor unions could comment if they would expect to see statements like this as well?
Free from money, yes but not free from value. As there's usually little-to-no line to the self-checkouts, I save time. For a little effort on my part I don't have to wait in line (something I hate more than checking out my stuff).
>The self-checkout stand, destroyer of jobs
Vintage luddite. I'm honestly flabbergasted that people who gladly use modern technology like internet, smartphones, computers etc never stop to reflect on the sheer number of jobs their gadgets have destroyed. But the self-checkout stands, this is outrageous!
I am curious what kind of society this will lead to - will it mean an increase in overall education or will it be a race to the bottom where only the most impractical work that robots can't do, is reserved for those who have no knowledge skills?
Though, my first job was in a kitchen while I was studying, as I didn't yet have the skills to get an knowledge job. I was lucky to have government support back then however, so while I was at the threshold of just paying rent/food and needed that job back then, it wouldn't have needed much more from the public coffers so I could have spent those manual-labour hours studying.
Edit: I forgot about the crossover of skilled labour: plumbers, electricians, some kinds of farm work, others I haven't considered. I guess I just see those are getting more and more specialised and need less labour rather than none.
I think it would be far easier to automate certain kinds of labwork by doctors (particularly anything that looks at a series of images and matches them to a disorder), than to automate plumbing work. I think it will be easier to automate a lot of CPA's work (particularly anything like mapping data to where it fits into a structure of tax documents) than to automate running electrical lines in an existing house.
The economics of a lot of currently high end knowledge work lends itself much more easily to automation than a lot of trades do, since they are addressable with a purely software solution in a relatively controlled problem space rather than through highly complex robotics in highly chaotic environments.
He indicated that dies bought from China and elsewhere are often 1/3 to 1/4 the price of dies made in America. They don’t last as long and the tolerances are usually looser than American dies. They may contain flaws that require some rework before being put into service.
Still, they are purchased in great volume, and he has trouble finding shops that can pay for someone with his expertise. He is overqualified relative to customer demand.
We can't expect to have a monotonically increasing salary throughout our lives; see: 2008 Financial Crisis for instances of folks with masters degrees taking minimum wage service industry jobs.
I bet it will look like the movie elysium.
I don’t think they do take away jobs, or if they do, its less than supposed.
The real problem is that grocery is a low margin business to begin with, and for so many chains it’s a race to the bottom. That means cutting down on the number of cashiers, but that doesn’t exactly mean that self checkouts are taking over.
Almost every store that has self checkouts in addition to staffed checkouts has at least one person normally helping watch the self checkout registers. Thats basically why they aren’t taking a lot of jobs yet. Under normal circumstances, if you got rid of the self checkouts, at most you’d only get one extra register open on average.
When we do a full shop we take the barcode scanner with us around the shop, and scan as we take things off the shelf, so we don't need to unload anything at the till.
Upon moving here, I endured this twice, before switching stores. I still use this one on occasion; but, only if I can put everything in a hand basket.
There’s a button to skip the bagging area. I think it’s intended for large items that wouldn’t fit, but you could also go straight to the cart with smaller items. Usually the machine doesn’t like if you remove something that was previously placed in the bagging area though, so that’s an annoyance for large orders that could be accumulated into bags.
Pretty sure that's not generally the case. In Migros (Swiss supermarket chain), where I shop, they have one or two people monitoring 10-15 self-checkout stations. Even though the customers might be a bit slower scanning than full time cashiers, that's still a lot less people than an equivalent amount of old-school checkout lanes.
But yeah, there will probably be shops where self-checkout will never be feasible, like electronics stores or pharmacies.
If I want to use my own bags, I’ll need to have each signed in as legal extra weight by the clerk. If I want to buy alcohol, I need to be verified as over 18 by the clerk. They are situated lower, than the regular checkouts, so I have to bend my back a lot more to use them.
I know this makes me sound like an angry old man, but I’m not alone. Because I detest them I’ll happily queue up for the regular checkouts. I say queue, exactly because I’m not alone. I’ve stood in 10 minute queues for the regular checkouts while the self-checkout right next to me was empty for the entire time.
I don’t see myself ever using one again unless the supermarket starts paying me to do so, so I’m actually not too concerned they’ll take over too much work.
I’d be much more worried about the Amazon take on shopping. I mean, that’s automation that actually improves my experience as a customer, these self-checkouts are not.
For some jobs (like factory workers) this doesn't work so well in practice as people beyond a certain age (let's say 40) can't just cycle back into entry level work.
All that said, automating store clerks has no downside. No one is a career store clerk. This is an entry level job practically by definition.
I worked with several career store clerks when I worked in a store. There were 3 or 4 people I worked with who started working there when they were younger than I was at the time(19) and had been working there well into their 40's. They gave me inspiration. I knew I never ever wanted to be them.
Literally some mentally retarded people have this as a sort of career. It allows a sense of belonging in or contribution to society.
Not saying that’s a reason not to automate it, but some people will keep getting left behind by the trend.
I don't think banning the technology is the right answer. Maybe hiring more blue-collar workers in different jobs (think cleaners, gardeners, guards, etc.) might be the ticket. Of course, taxes will have to go up because somebody has to pay for these things. But we'd have a cleaner, safer world with less unemployed people.
All it does it moves work previously done by the cashier to the customer.
I don't believe any labor is saved.
1. Self-checkouts have become another a way to diminish the power of the strike.
2. It's not really automation. The labor has been shifted onto the customer.
We can have a discussion about efficiency and innovation, but that's not exactly what's being pointed out here.
The real shift that allowed for this isn't so much the development of these POS systems, but rather the ubiquity of touch screen devices in our daily lives. In the past these POS systems probably required training, but now they're intuitive. Our adoption of technology adjacent to the POS industry has lowered the bar for entry such that now even a toddler can operate a self checkout; that's not even an exaggeration.
Fuck off, mate. You know how much I love being able to make sure I'm paying the right amount for each item? How nice it is for my groceries to not be slammed around and damaged by a bagger? The sweet relief of being able to put my money and wallet away with no pressure from people standing six inches behind me?
I personally love self checkout lines.