As Amazon purchases Whole Foods, don’t fear for the cashier. Fear for the supermarket

By the time this kid can push his own cart, grocery stores themselves could be obsolete.
By the time this kid can push his own cart, grocery stores themselves could be obsolete.
Image: AP Photo/Amy Sancetta
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When Amazon announced its plan to pay $13.7 billion for Whole Foods Market last week, pundits wondered what it meant for the workers at Whole Foods’ more than 450 store locations.

Whole Foods’ infamously high prices are partly the result of its highly human approach to groceries. The stores post experts in every department and offers human service at specialty counters.

Amazon’s brick-and-mortar retail ambitions, meanwhile, have been focused around a technology that eliminates the need to interact with human employees at all. Instead, customers take products off of shelves and walk out of the stores. Amazon’s technology keeps tabs on what they’ve purchased and charges their accounts.

Most concern after the acquisition announcement was for Whole Foods’ cashiers. More than 3.5 million people work as retail cashiers, and almost one million of them work in grocery stores, according to the Department of Labor. Another 4.5 million work as retail salespeople. Could Amazon’s acquisition hasten the job’s demise?

Amazon has said that it doesn’t plan to automate Whole Foods’ checkout lines. But the question itself is the wrong way to look at Amazon’s impact on grocery workers.

Much more impactful is the reality that Amazon’s technology could make grocery stores as we know them obsolete. ”Every grocer will remember this day as the beginning of a new era,” longtime grocery analyst Phil Lempert told Quartz. And that would have consequences on workers throughout the grocery store and even in its back-office operations, not just those who operate cash registers.

Obsolescence, not automation, has been the most common job category killer in recent history. Since 1950, only one occupation in the US census—elevator operators—has been completely automated by technology. That’s partly because nobody invented an automatic telegraph operator or an automated boardinghouse keeper. Rather, new technologies and industries arose that made the old occupations obsolete.

As Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the M.I.T. Initiative on the Digital Economy, put it to the New York Times: “The bigger and more profound way that technology affects jobs is by completely reinventing the business model.”

Amazon’s re-invention of the supermarket business model could look more like the end of the telegraph operator than the elevator operator. The real fear is that Amazon will replace the expertise that Whole Foods’ staff bring to the food business with data and software, not just by automating check-out.

It is true that the future does not look bright for employment prospects in running a cash register. A 2017 McKinsey report estimated that more than half of the tasks involved in retail jobs could be automated, and that these solutions were less expensive than employing workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes on its website that “advances in technology, such as self-service checkout stands in retail stores and increasing online sales, will continue to limit the need for cashiers.”

In its retail experiments so far, Amazon is not simply ‘automating the cashier.’ As Brynjolfsson put it to the Times, “the idea of a cashier won’t be so much automated as just made irrelevant—you’ll just tell your Echo what you need, or perhaps it will anticipate what you need, and stuff will get delivered to you.” Instead of a Whole Foods’ stocker letting you know that that a tasty new variety of mango has arrived, you’ll hear the news from a robot in your kitchen.

When grocery stores themselves eliminated jobs at butcher shops and bakeries by disrupting those businesses, they also created new jobs in the process. If history is any indication transforming the grocery store will also transform the work involved in running one, generating another cycle of new jobs. But some do not believe that is how the current transformation will work, and that software’s reach may not leave much behind for the next generation of human employees.

There are plenty of concerning questions worth asking about the future of the grocery store worker: Will new jobs be as good, worse, or better, as the cashier jobs that came before them? Will there be as many of those jobs as there were cashier jobs? And will the people who work retail today have the skill sets to do these new jobs? But lamenting the demise of cashiers misses the bigger picture.