Walmart Automation

I just visited my Walmart Neighborhood Market today. I hadn’t been in there in a few months, so the changes were obvious. There were numerous self-checkout stands, one cashier for people who didn’t want to or couldn’t use the machines, and a lady standing around watching all of us use the checkout machines.

Put aside that, if I were so inclined, I can imagine numerous ways to stuff items in my sack which I didn’t pay for. I suppose Walmart figures this isn’t a problem or they can withstand the minor losses which could result in this activity. At a guess, I’d say they are probably pretty hard on people who try this and get caught. This would act as a deterrent to those who might want to copy this behavior.

But more important, the question I kept asking myself was how many cashiers were fired as a result of turning cashier duties over to machines.

I’ve seen this at McDonalds as well, though it’s more subtle there. At my closest McDonalds, you stand in front of the register, and you’re blatantly ignored for a time, in hopes that you will give up and learn to use the two automated ordering kiosks. I’m not exaggerating or making this up. I’ve seen it happen. Numerous employees behind the count stand there, fully capable of tending the register, and they watch you without assisting. At times, they come to the counter and ask if you’d like to use the kiosk instead. I’ve even had them escort me to the kiosk and hold my hand while I used it.

There isn’t a great penetration of this trend in the retail market. McDonalds and Walmart can afford to do this. Other fast food places aren’t on board yet. But it’s coming. I can forsee a time when self-checkout will be the norm in America. Those too young to remember the way things used to be will be surprised and puzzled to learn there was a time when there were people behind those registers, instead of machines.

I get it. Labor is a pain. I’ve had to hire, fire and scold (and congratulate) employees. Often labor is your highest cost. And you have to deal with sickness, divorce, death, birth, and time off to handle errands which can’t be done at any other time. You have to be careful what you say and the kind of questions you ask to potential hires. You have to be careful what you say and do to and around employees. And then there’s employee and ex-employee litigation. Not to mention unemployment taxes. By contrast, machines don’t complain. You can exactly amortize their cost over time, and they (hopefully) rarely need maintenance.

And I’m not normally a fan of labor and particularly big labor (unions). But I also have empathy for the thousands whose jobs are lost every year to automation. Of course, this has been going on for decades. Much of the assembly of automobiles and electronics is now automated. But I didn’t notice that as much, because I don’t have anything to do with those industries. When Walmart and McDonalds start automating, I notice, because I visit them on a regular basis.

Interestingly, when I was a kid, most of the people working in fast food were kids. Now they’re mostly adults. When I was a kid, boys and girls on bikes delivered your daily newspaper. Now it’s an adult in a station wagon.

So there have been (and will continue to be) major changes to the labor market. In some cases, automation will never be a factor. My local thrift stores and hair salons will never be automated. But everywhere it can, automation is creeping in.

It doesn’t help that idiots keep trying to raise the minimum wage, which cuts deep into corporate profits. I couldn’t care less whether corporations live or die, so their profits don’t actually matter that much to me. But raising the minimum wage only forces other costs to rise, and it becomes a vicious cycle. And if you know anything about economics, this only makes sense. Worse, a national minimum wage is overkill for some areas, and woefully inadequate for others. But most important, raising the minimum wage results in exactly the kind of automation which McDonalds and Walmart are undertaking.

Of course, there isn’t much you can do about all this. For my part, every time I have a chance to avoid automated checkouts, I do. But automation is coming to a retailer near you. Makes me sad. Have you ever been to a place often enough that you’ve gotten to know the cashiers or tellers you deal with? Gone.

Emjoy the employees of your retail establishments as long as you can. And do whatever little you can to stall their corporations from replacing them with computers.