Clock is ticking on supermarket checkouts – and much more

Vital Signs: the end of the checkout signals a dire future for those without the right skills

Clock is ticking on supermarket checkouts – and much more

Shop checkouts are predicted to disappear this decade. Customers will be able to take what they want and walk out, with payment done automatically. www.shutterstock.comRichard Holden, UNSW


There has already been a fair number of jobs lost to automation over recent decades – from factory workers to bank tellers.

In the coming decade we might see radically larger numbers of jobs lost to automation, thanks to advances in machine learning and other technologies.

Two areas are transport and retail.

In transport, tech company TuSimple has for months been testing autonomous trucks for UPS (the world’s largest delivery company). The trucks, hauling freight between Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona, still have a human behind the wheel for safety, but it’s only a matter of time before they become redundant.

In supermarkets, meanwhile, the shift from checkout operators to self-service will be soon be followed by eliminating the checkout system – and attendants – entirely.

A senior executive with Australian supermarket giant Coles said the clocking was ticking on checkouts:

I have no doubt in the next 10 years, customers will be able to take the product off the shelf, put it in their basket, walk out and have it all paid for.

Given the concentration of the Australian grocery industry – with Coles, Woolworths, Aldi and IGA having about 80 per cent market share – this could happen in a lot of outlets in a short space of time.

Read more: When AI meets your shopping experience it knows what you buy – and what you ought to buy

The technology for this already exists. Amazon has been trialling its “no-checkout” Amazon Go technology at more than 20 Amazon-owned convenience stores in major US cities. Customers can walk into an Amazon Go store, “swipe in” with the app on their phone, pick up what they want and then simply walk out.

How it works exactly only Amazon knows, but it seems to involve sensors that identify what you’ve picked and artificial intelligence calculating what you’re likely to pick up based on previous purchases. Those who have used it say it works remarkably well.

In time, the spread of such technology could wipe out more than 150,000 cashier jobs remaining in Australia.

And that’s just one sector of the economy.

Read more: The economics of self-service checkouts

Is this time different?
The argument against worrying about automation is that it’s always easier to identify the jobs likely to be lost than the new ones that will emerge.

There’s some truth to this. Who knew in 1995, for example, that “social media manager” would be a job 20 years later?

It’s also true the invention of the printing press and the mechanical plough destroyed jobs. But they also created more, as have many other innovations over the past 200 years.

But there are two reasons to be concerned – reasons I explore in a forthcoming book with co-author Rosalind Dixon.

The first is that this time really looks to be different in terms of scale. It has been estimated up to 14 per cent of jobs in OECD countries are highly subject to automation, and a further 32 per cent could face significant changes to how they are carried out.

The second is the jobs created by automation might not be suited to the people who lose their jobs. The cashier replaced by an automated checkout is unlikely to be qualified to work on the artificial intelligence technology that created it.

This has been true in the past to a degree, but a factory labourer who lost their job could at least move into the services sector. They were not paid as well – a very real issue – but at least they could find another job without signficant reskilling.

Read more: The benefits of job automation are not likely to be shared equally

This time around there is reason to believe the skills of those who prosper from automation are going to be very different to those who lose.

The distributional implications of this are large and important.

The proper response
When a new technology increases the size of the overall economic pie, it is better to embrace it and try to take care of those who lose out.

That involves, if they have trouble finding a new job, doing more than ensuring they have an income.

As former US vice-president Joe Biden has recalled his father telling him:

You know, Joey, a job is about a lot more than a pay cheque. It’s about dignity, it’s about respect. It’s about your place in the community.

That means the proper response to automation has to be serious retraining to give people the skills to get a new job.

If that is not enough, it may mean the government providing jobs.

This kind of jobs guarantee is being talked about by mainstream economists and centrist politicians for the first time since the 1930s, when it formed a key part of the US government’s New Deal response to the Great Depression through the Works Progress Administration.

If the automation of the 2020s turns out to be a “robocalypse” of self-driving cars, automated baristas and AI-driven professional services, it might indeed be needed.

Be prepared
As US baseball great Yogi Bera said: “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.” But we’ve seen enough evidence of an automation revolution driven by machine learning and big data to know we need to be prepared.

That means thinking now about a range of policies to provide people with work but not give up on the power of markets. Would you trust an automated checkout? Are you concerned where technology is taking us? The Conversation

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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    To make a comment, please register or login
    2nd Feb 2020
    good way for supermarkets to rip customers off , put something in a basket and its paid for , and then the customer has to go through all thier purchases to check them all
    80 plus
    2nd Feb 2020
    we always check our till receipt and use a check out, last Friday in Coles we purchased an item marked was $1.35 NOW $1.00 we were charged $1.35, when we challenged this amount we were given it free, BUT how many other shoppers were charged $1.35, As we used to say "a nice little earner" when you use an APP how do you check? by the way we do not own a mobile phone, how will we shop??
    2nd Feb 2020
    Yes 80 plus, I've had similar experiences at IGA being charged full price for reduced cost items. I also do not use a mobile phone although I keep an old fashioned one in my car in case of an emergency. It only costs me $15.00 per year from Aldi.
    2nd Feb 2020
    Me too. I never leave the supermarket until I’ve checked every item. I’ve found quite a few mistakes over the years. I’ve also on occasions been given the wrong change.
    2nd Feb 2020
    I have lost count of the number of times I have written down the price of an item - as noted on the shelf - only to have it scan at a higher price. Funny how it is never a lower price. A common fault is a 'specials' tag, stating a price, so I grab that item. But when I query this at checkout, I am told - 'oh that was for last week;. Think is, the line saying 'effective till xxxdate' - is so feint and small, you need a magnifying glass to see it. The store will honor one item free, and any others at the 'old' price.

    It also absolutely astounds me the number of people who walk through the 'self serve section' with goods not paid for. Only the other day I noticed the woman next to me put some items into a bag, then put it in her trolley - and pay. BUT - she still had items in another bag in her trolley that she had not scanned. Just walked out. I mentioned this to the so called supervisor and her reply astounded me - 'we are short staffed with security staff today' and did nothing. No wonder prices continue to rise with all the theft.
    2nd Feb 2020
    Where is the logic in automating so many of the lower-skilled tasks, when the end result is widespread unemployment of these workers and thus less money available to be circulated in the general economy. Any monetary benefits of automation will go to the captains of industry and shareholders who already have more than they could ever need, while taking away jobs from the little people who really need them.
    2nd Feb 2020
    Unfortunately Jenny, this automation has been going on for centuries, the invention of the printing press displaced countless scribes, the long bow and later firearms revolutionized warfare, in the early 1700s the flying shuttle revolutionized the weaving industry and later the spinning jenny which enabled one worker do the work of about 8. How many stage coach drivers lost jobs when railways were built and countless ostlers lost their jobs when motor cars became widespread. I guess it is called progress.
    In my lifetime I have seen the demise of several job classification, including telegram boys, telegraphers. ledger machinists and various aspects of the printing trade to name a few. In the near future we are likely to see truck drivers being replaced by autonomous vehicles. However for every job replaced another seems to open up. For instance 50 years ago there were no personal computers, no mobile phones and no internet. Look at how many people are employed in these industries today. 50 years ago women mostly stayed at home while their husbands went to work, yet we still had unemployment of somewhere around 5%. Today lots of women now work and our unemployment rate has little changed. The conclusion one can reach is that as technology advances and the participation rate in the labour market increases the number of jobs also increases.The only constant in this world is change, and the more things change the more they stay the same.
    3rd Feb 2020
    I take your point Eddy. I suppose I am a little rueful about the changes I have seen , and regret that so many of the personal touches have gone from the services which we once enjoyed. You are right in pointing out the changes that occurred due to women being far more involved in the workforce. That has made a huge difference to the employment situation, but also has created more stress for families with the difficulties in combining family and working lives. Although change and progress are mainly for the good, they do have their downsides as well as the benefits. I just don't want to see the world becoming more and more impersonal and stressed.
    Horace Cope
    2nd Feb 2020
    What we don't know is how many jobs are out there when some industries are forced to close down and how much income can be expected from such jobs. There was an article in the Canberra Times with some Labor MP's addressing this issue in respect to coal mine closures, a large part of the Greens policies. It makes for interesting reading with the concensus being that jobs paying $120,000pa may be replaced by jobs paying $40,000pa. The link is here:

    Automation seems to be addressing the ease of shopping with apps and self service checkouts rather than the cost savings to the consumer that should be evident when wages bills are reduced. I am old enough to recall the legislation allowing motorists to self serve at fuel outlets and politicians trumpeting the cost savings when labour costs were reduced. The result was prices staying the same and a loss of jobs throughout the industry.

    There is the mention of bank tellers but automation in the banking industry that started in the 70's has been more devastating that ATM's costing tellers their jobs. A bank I used to use in the 70's, in Liverpool, had a staff of about 80 and was spread over three different buildings. Following all of the accounts being placed on a computer system, within 4 years the staff had dropped to 28 and all under the one roof. As all financial institutions were doing the same, the redundant staff were unable to find employment within that industry.

    I note the comment "it may mean the government providing jobs" but governments don't provide jobs except for the Public Service. Governments provide incentives and markets for the private sector to create jobs, It is public confidence that means more spending which, in turn, creates more work and more jobs. It's too trite to say that if the unemployment rises because of automation that a government will pick up the shortfall.
    2nd Feb 2020
    Horace, people losing their jobs through automation is not just some random thing happening, it is rich people finding ways to be richer, and suddenly-poor people being without the money to survive.
    Our basic legal system is the Law of Torts, - "A has an obligation to B, - to take care.".
    We all acknowledge that murdering, thieving, raping, swindling, etc. are not taking care, and like those, 'many not taking care' activities have parliamentary made laws to ascribe punishments and smooth the way for the legal system to expedite whatever people feel ought to be done to the 'not taking care.' people when they don't take care.
    Corruption can occur, for instance when very rich people influence politicians to inordinately punish people for 'property' crimes, not taking care crimes (eg sent to Australia for stealing a loaf of bread). but generally the system works OK as a basis for democracy, and the very rich people, who don't want to take any care except for their own wealth and power, are still sometimes restrained in their greed by our wise laws.
    So the Government, which allows a company etc to not take care, must, by our basic law, take responsibility for allowing one group in society to in effect steal from another.
    Judging that the basic law of our democracy is trite, opens a pandora's box of evil, Multinationals destroying our society, the rich taking from the poor at every opportunity, eg tax cuts, which never help jobs, and any such that takes away the duty of the Govt to do something by allowing A to not take care of B.
    That the Govt has time and time got away with it does not make it right, - there are serial killers and rapists that have never been brought to trial, but no normal person thinks that that is good.

    So, when a large number of people lose their jobs, whether it is by the supermarkets depriving customers of personal sales contact to save a few dollars but making those people lose their livelihoods, and becoming unable to give their children the support for education that they need, the Govt is breaking the law.
    By calling that trite, you are making yourself an accomplice to that law breaking, and from other things you have said I don't believe you are that sort of selfish stupid person, but just haven't thought things through.
    Well, it is now the time that everybody will have to think things through, - if we don't look after our environment and stop heating up the planet our environment will gradually but inexorably disappear, - and us with it!
    If the Govt does not plan for loss of jobs because checkout chicks and coal miners are too expensive we will have increasing social inequality, not enough money to go around to keep the economy alive so economic stagnation, a downward spiral that will hurt even the rich.
    History is to learn from, the Romans did it, = taxed the marginal land so no farmer could pay their tax, so all the marginal land was abandoned, decided they needed money for partying so not pay the Army and the Jutes or Vandals or whatever just walked into Rome, up to the corrupt senate, pissed on them and cut their throats, - the which they thoroughly deserved, but those invaders then raped, pillaged and killed the ordinary population, who did not so deserve.
    We are now in a dreadful situation where our leaders do not obey the basic law and care nothing, do nothing, take no responsibility, have no b''''ody idea, so they are failing to do their job, probably are incapable of doing their job even if they understood what it is, so have broken the contract with us who elected them to be our representatives and take the care we trusted them to do on our behalf.
    Obviously they have to go, - preferably yesterday, but also we have to take responsibility to really take care who we vote to replace them, - we can't afford any more to vote for politicians that will not take care of us, our economy, our education system, roads, water, power supply, etc. on our behalf, - by voting for such ravening beasts, we will ourselves be ravened.
    2nd Feb 2020
    If the jobs go , who is going to have money to buy anything.? Plain greed. I read Coles and Woolworth's had a lot of pinching and they had to up the staff they put off.?
    2nd Feb 2020
    If the supermarket checkouts end, my support for the supermarkets will end. I will go out of my way to buy in bulk from outlets that still provide good old fashioned service. I'll support small markets-stalls and the corner delis and outlets that still offer service with a smile. If necessary I will grow my own veggies, buy off farm stalls and barter with friends. The 20K I stop spending every year at Coles and Woolworths may only be a drop in the ocean to them. But at least I will have a clear conscious and know that I am not supporting a system that has added to the loss of jobs and its impact on teens and elderly people. I currently pay more for my groceries to keep local teens and the elderly in jobs. I'm not going to keep paying more if a machine I can't exchange a smile with is doing the job. I have no loyalty to Coles, Woolworths or Aldi. I buy from them simply because they provide jobs in my local community. And I'll buy as little as I have to from them if they destroy those jobs.
    Horace Cope
    2nd Feb 2020
    I agree aussiecarer, I refuse to use self serve as it's my small protest and my stupidity in think my actions will keep someone employed. Do you really pay more to keep local teens in jobs? Those local teens at Woolies, Coles and Aldi are gainfully employed and the self serve outlets don't mean a reduction in the cost of goods but a savings to the companies in lower wages.
    2nd Feb 2020
    I agree with you, Aussiecarer.
    2nd Feb 2020
    Same here, Horace - only ever use the machines if there is nobody available soon, the fast checkout is closed, and the staff are already handling shopping baskets piled high..

    2nd Feb 2020
    Well - it'll affect everybody who functions within the economy (you know by now the Usual Suspects who can be left out of that noble group) - fewer people earning an income means less buying - ergo - stores without checkouts will suffer as well - as will the national economy, which will mean the vampyres in Canberra will have to organise many new small ways to nibble away at the after-costs earnings of the little people.. nobody really notices a tiny bit more from each of the multitude, eh?
    2nd Feb 2020
    Perhaps a twenty hour week or will we work longer for less and we know who will benefit .
    2nd Feb 2020
    Floss - currently happens. I worked a full time job - requested to go to part time. They were quite happy for me to day that - cut my pay in half. But I was still expected to do the exact same work load. They were bot interested in a job share.
    2nd Feb 2020
    Who was the moron that said automation would be good for everyone??
    2nd Feb 2020
    Truck drivers minding automatically driven trucks? I have a lot of respect for truckies but we have enough of them falling asleep at the wheel at present due I suspect in part to supermarket delivery pressures, I just hate to think how they will stay awake when they don't have to drive?
    With enough shoppers resisting zero check-outs there will be at least one supermarket chain which will offer check-outs for quite a while yet. Remember not long ago Coles restricted their self service check-outs to no more than 12 items due to high pilferage rates. If the new systems are not better at preventing light fingered shoppers they may have a limited future. Presumably too the new systems will require all fresh fruit and vegetables to be pre-packed for them to work, so more plastic.
    If we ever get a government that cares enough about our environment to restrict plastic packaging that could also prove to be a challenge to more automated checkouts.
    pedro the swift
    2nd Feb 2020
    Another problem is that as our schools are no longer able or willing to teach the basics properly the people who may be made rdundant from the checkouts will not b able to be trained in a higher level task as they just dont have the skills needed. So there will be a large pool of people with no real skills and no way to easily train them up to a suitable level.
    2nd Feb 2020
    You mean we'll have to get our kids to concentrate more on learning usable work skills rather than our obsession with sport? The only countries that will benefit from automation are those sufficiently well educated and smart enough to design, build, program and service the robots and automated equipment. When we have a government that doesn't even believe in science or industry policy, that leaves us out unless we can get our heads out of the mine-shafts and realize that if we don't smarten up and add value to something we'll continue being at the dumb end of the supply chain. As so many of our mines are foreign owned, becoming more automated and pay little or no tax, we won't even get enough revenue from them to contribute towards keeping the unemployed.
    I don't believe our schools are unable or unwilling to teach, we have a culture where sport is the preoccupation and easy option and a lack of a learning or education culture. If I'm wrong why are so many Indian,Chinese and other Asian kids in Australia outperforming the others in education? They go to the same schools but live within a different family attitude and culture.
    2nd Feb 2020
    The game plan is working then!! A poverty-ridden, semi-literate and semi-numerate population are easier to control...
    2nd Feb 2020
    That's what TAFE is for Pedro, reskilling. If I could get into administration after 20 plus years mining I'm sure anyone who wants to find further work can always have a go.
    2nd Feb 2020
    Having supermarkets being self-help/self-pay is no good for me because I have a metal plate in my wrist and cannot lift heavy articles or even pack them. Also, I don't do electronic banking so can't have my purchases cost transferred into any supermarket account as I would think would be the way it would go.

    What's going to happen to old people like me?
    2nd Feb 2020
    Having supermarkets being self-help/self-pay is no good for me because I have a metal plate in my wrist and cannot lift heavy articles or even pack them. Also, I don't do electronic banking so can't have my purchases cost transferred into any supermarket account as I would think would be the way it would go.

    What's going to happen to old people like me?
    2nd Feb 2020
    This movement started back in 1800 with the Industrial Revolution, the Luddites and all that. It changed society a lot, a few became rich, some became poor while others could eventually live better than their ancestors. Many new jobs and skills have developed as a result of this.
    2nd Feb 2020
    The big difference then was the eventual introduction of universal education and the widespread desire to learn to improve their lot and importantly to improve the lot of their kids. Some countries benefited from the industrial revolution but the countries supplying the raw materials were exploited. Where will Australia fit into this new industrial revolution?
    2nd Feb 2020
    We'll work all night on a drink of rum, if we can get a night's work loading 6ft, 7ft, 8ft bunch - we ARE the Banana Republic...
    Chris B T
    3rd Feb 2020
    Power outages, EFTPOS down, faulty Phone/Device are just some of the things that come to mind.
    Change of mind on Product Choice/Quantity/Weight are other things to be considered.
    Breakages/Leaking Products are some others to be considered as well.
    Trust in this System at this Point in time Absolutely No Trust At All.
    These systems are put in Place For There Benefit Not Yours.
    4th Feb 2020
    Chris, you're right. My wife and I have just returned from the local State services office to renew our licences. The office was empty, the system was down and they could do nothing. Could we leave our renewal forms here for processing? No, could we pay now? No. So a totally wasted 25km trip. We have had the same issue in regional supermarkets, doctors' surgeries and cafes and banks. If we go too far, too fast down this track without backup systems our way of life could be threatened by a few rogue actors.
    7th Oct 2020
    With all these jobs being lost to AI no one will have any money to buy the goods that the shops are selling. There is a certain percentage of the work force, particularly older women who cannot retrain and many who are over 55 cannot get work and yet they have to wait until they are 67 to get the Age Pension. Many women have interrupted working life, having children and caring for elderly parents, there are just so many issues that women have to grapple with that do not affect men and yet most politicians are men.

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