In 2016, Amazon go announced its Amazon Go store, in which you do nothing but walk in, grab the groceries you need and walk out.
A prototype of the store has already been opened in the US city of Seattle, and retail giant also considers opening one in Germany. If all goes well, Amazon will extend the branch an revolutionise the world of supermarkets. This ties in to the less technological (in comparison) change when it comes to automatic checkouts. A 2017 analysis by the Cornerstone Capital Group finds that in the United States, 7.5 million retail jobs are under the immediate threat of computerisation. A McKinsey report from last year goes further, and describes the Amazon-type self-checkout and no-worker grocery stores as being capable of reducing the total labour hours needed by nearly two-thirds.
As I was shopping in one of the local supermarket branches in Brussels, I saw a woman in her 80s use one of these machines. She paid by card, used the scanner to cash in her glass deposit, without any help from a cashier. I couldn’t help but ask myself why, if a lady of such an old age is able to use these machines, they haven’t become more common? In fact, as government increase the price of labour through the minimum wage, it actually accelerates the incentive for automation. Take it away, Reason Magazine:
No matter what we do, as computers and AI progress, we won’t escape the atomisation of retail completely. And that, mind you, isn’t a bad thing. As we spend less hours in the store and less money through prices (as production cost of your retail service goes down), we have time and money to spend on other things, making us richer, not poorer. Think about it this way: decades ago the average working week was 60 hours. Despite us now standing at 40 hours, we are all better off and we benefit from better services. We simply became better at doing more things in less time.
Now the attentive reader will ask about the cashiers, and the lack of empathy you’ll have to have in order to see them unemployed for the sake of a quicker checkout. That is the hardship of technological innovation: horsemen lost from the emergence of the railways, fax machine manufacturers suffered from the internet and emails in particular, and the medical cure for tuberculosis was to the detriment of coffin makers (though demographic increase probably sorted out that hardship).
On this point, it is only opportune to quote economist Milton Friedman. In reply to the government bureaucrat of one Asian country who told him that, reason why there were workers with shovels instead of modern tractors and earth movers at a worksite of a new canal, was that: “You don’t understand. This is a jobs program”, Friedman said: ““Oh, I thought you were trying to build a canal. If it’s jobs you want, then you should give these workers spoons, not shovels.”