There's a difference in technology developed to improve our lives and technology developed to eliminate jobs. The process of shifting labor from business to the consumer has been going on a long time: fast food restaurants, self-service gas pumps, and automated phone systems come to mind. In the grocery business, it began with letting customers collect their own items in the early 20th century. The tipping point for self-service groceries arrived with self-checkouts, which is a bridge too far for many shoppers. Researcher Alexandra Mateescu talks about the history of self-service.
Just to reemphasize, the pitch from the automated checkout makers was and is all about labor savings and much less about any perceptible improvements for customers. The automated checkout companies do try to nod to some consumer benefits, but it’s a distant and deeply secondary tier of the sell. “While the manufacturers also promote consumer advantages that may indirectly affect businesses‚ most commonly shorter lines and faster checkouts—the main selling point is lower labor costs,” Andrews writes.
“This is the pretty straightforward ‘sell’ laid out in all the marketing material from vendors—‘invest in these machines, and get the savings back and more by trimming payroll,’” Mateescu notes. And, as Andrews adds in another paper, “growing pressure from low-wage nonunion competitors (e.g., WalMart) may cause supermarkets to consider expanding automation beyond current levels, thereby significantly affecting current employment patterns.”
So, the retailers and grocery chains bit. Kmart, Walmart, and a number of other major supermarkets began installing self-checkout systems in the late 90s and early 00s, to mixed success. At best. Actually, people mostly ignored or hated them, for the same reasons you probably still hate them today—items wouldn’t scan, sensors went haywire, and a cashier or supervisor had to be called over to reset the machine or enter some arcane code every other item. Home Depot famously overcommitted to self-checkout and pulled them out after losing business to Lowe’s.
Read more about the shift of labor to consumers and the resulting backlash at Gizmodo.
(Image credit: Chelsea Beck/Gizmodo)