The Last Page

The Last Page

You go shopping and find yourself in a long line, waiting for help from a competent but overwhelmed cashier. On your right you see four self-service stations with no lines. A cashier stands ready to train you on how to scan barcodes. Just swipe your card and go.

You feel guilty about shopping at a corporate chain in the first place, so you opt to save the cashier’s job by waiting. Watching your fellow shoppers defect to the self-service stations, you foresee a future with one cashier supervising ten stations. When your turn comes, you tell your friendly cashier that you’d like to pay by credit card. He has you swipe your card yourself before handing it to him. You’re still being trained.

Self-checkout is coming to a store near you. ACNielsen reported that more than 60 percent of households polled have used the stations. The Food Marketing Institute tells me that 29 percent of food stores are using the stations. A representative of Home Depot told that 30 percent of their sales are already self-checkout. IBM sees this as the future of retail. As it stated in an acquisition release, “Using IBM’s global reach, we also will be able to deliver these solutions to retailers around the world.”

Companies claim they are motivated by a desire to speed up transactions for customers. The real motivations, as Greg Denier, director of communications for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union told me, are “to reduce labor costs and eliminate jobs.” He estimated that cashier labor costs are reduced 30 percent to 40 percent at stores with self-checkout. Studies of self-service transactions show that self-service isn’t even faster.
This could change. As a supervisor at Home Depot told the Athens Banner-Herald, “As soon as we get ’em trained . . . it’s gonna roll right along.”

The loss of these jobs is part of a larger threat. For years we’ve watched good-paying jobs be outsourced or replaced by technology. At first, we were assured that these losses were temporary growing pains of our economy’s shift from an industrial to an information base. Now, thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement, the World Trade Organization, and the Clinton and Bush administrations, even the computer jobs are leaving. Denier told me that only a few years ago the Bureau of Labor Statistics was reporting “cashier” as the occupation with the best growth. The Bureau’s Occupational Outlet Handbook states that “electronic commerce will have a limited impact on this large occupation.” However, once we are fully trained we can expect these jobs to decline dramatically. Denier put it this way: “They’re taking the service out of the service market.”

I suggested a boycott of self-checkout lanes. Denier agreed that this approach might appeal to people already sympathetic to the issue of job los...

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