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When customers can skip the cashier line, what happens to the nation's 3.6M cashiers?

Supporters of automation point to historical patterns dating back to the Industrial Revolution.
Image: A cashier in Walmart
A cashier in Walmart.Jeff Greenberg / UIG via Getty Images file

The new wireless checkout that Walmart, Target, and other retailers are rolling out for the holiday season may lower stress for shoppers — but tension may be building among the roughly 3.6 million people nationwide who work as cashiers.

It's another nail in the occupational coffin. Amazon opened its first store with checkout-free shopping and automatic billing almost two years ago, and self-checkout at Walmart, Target, grocery stores, fast food restaurants, and some department stores is further reducing the need for people manning registers.

Technology continues to race ahead. The question is whether artificial intelligence, automation, robotics, and other developments will cut job opportunities for people who may have few alternatives.

Cashier jobs are hardly the only ones eyed for replacement. Short squat robots in Washington, D.C. roam the city, delivering take-out food to customers. Self-driving cars could eventually replace cab drivers and people moonlighting for Uber or Lyft.

"Walmart is embracing the technology of a company called Bossa Nova Robotics," said Howie Choset, a professor at The Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University. The company, started by a former graduate student of Choset, makes inventory robots. "It's a tall, skinny robot with lots of cameras and bright lights," Choset said. The device roams up and down the aisles late at night, taking count of products on the shelves. Inventory counts at retail stores have long been a staple activity of regular employees or temp workers.

Those who support various forms of automation point to historical patterns back to the Industrial Revolution. "I do think there are going to be jobs that are going to be created that are net new," said Todd Lohr, a KPMG principal in the consulting firm's digital enablement practice. "I think there's opportunity for organization to do right by the workforce."

The theory is that people will shift into new types of work. Drones that make deliveries will need specialized maintenance personnel. Computerized manufacturing equipment requires people to run, program, and monitor it.

People need training

The problem is a "misconception" about whether the U.S. labor force is dynamic, said Fordham University Senior Lecturer of Economics Giacomo Santangelo. There may be new jobs, but displaced workers likely lack the training and education to smoothly move into them.

"You can't just keep saying new work is created where old work goes away," said Phil Fersht, chief executive officer of HFS Research. "It becomes an issue of when these lower-end jobs go away. Where do these people go? We don't know."

Timing is also a problem. Although it will likely take "10 to 20 years" for companies to fully embrace new technologies, according to MIT Sloan School Professor Erik Brynjolfsson, change has been proceeding at a pace never before seen. He points to the need for entrepreneurship that can reinvent ideas of work and jobs for everyone.

However, the results are still far off. Short-term suggestions that some make, like having people become entrepreneurs who create handmade crafts, can be unrealistic.

"The solution is not to slow down technology but to speed up our response."

"It takes people years to learn [how to do the work]," Santangelo said.

As Brynjolfsson says, the country needs a public discussion on the issues and policies that can help transition people from dying occupations to ones that hold future promise. "Society as a whole has to address education, training, and the disruption of jobs," he said. "The solution is not to slow down technology but to speed up our response. Government, companies, and individuals can all make a difference."

But even though President Donald Trump's administration this year started to look at the question of AI and automation with a task force, progress remains far outpaced by the changes happening today.

The next economic calamity

What worries Fersht is that while companies have become "less obsessed with slashing head count" at the moment, that could change with another financial disaster.

"When we get another downturn and the mentality shifts, there are a lot more tools at the disposal of companies to drive out costs," Fersht said. "The capability is there like never before."

Then the issue becomes social, and not just economic, said Arne Kalleberg, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Extensive job losses in communities could drive long-time residents out, put pressure on families, and lead to poverty and economic upheaval.