Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Automating checkout chicks

When I went to the supermarket today, I saw for the first time a completely automated checkout system (completely automated, that is, except for the employee who explained to dolts like me how to use it).

It's a bit sinister seeing (largely female) jobs automated during a recession, when unemployment is climbing. I've heard the argument that we all need more education - that there should be no place for low-skilled jobs in our modern economy. I'm ambivalent about this. When this argument is made in relation to manufacturing, it simply means that we can get foreigners to do the work cheaper and under poor conditions. Yay. And you can't just lay off low skilled workers and expect the economy to absorb them straight away - skill shortages in IT or scientific research labs don't do much good for people who may not have finished high school.

I guess automated checkouts are cheaper than workers, and that the savings automation generates will be passed on to customers. I'd like a lower grocery bill - but I'd sooner pay a little more to keep these supermarket workers in their jobs.

19 comments:

Lucy said...

I can see a place for automated checkouts when people are only buying one thing - like a very truncated express lane - but in general it amazes me that stores are managing to make customers do more of the work and still convince them it's *for their benefit*. I don't think they'll ever replace low-paid workers, but it is worrying.

Psycho Milt said...

Interestingly, this coincides with a piece on 3 News this evening about the 30th anniversary of the barcode, which revolutionised supermarket shopping. A current supermarket manager appeared on camera to remind us how, when he started in the biz in the 1970s, they had to laboriously put price stickers on every item in the supermarket. That job no longer exists. Is it awful that we're not paying a little more rather than putting all those price-sticker-applicators out of a job? Frankly, I don't think so.

Julie said...

Ithink this opens up a broader issue of the balance of skilled and unskilled work in our labour market. (I hate the terms skilled and unskilled, but I can't think of anything better, for example a caregiver is supposedly unskilled, but a signwriter is skilled, yet the job the first does probably requires a broader range of skills than that of the second, but I digress).

It's fine for everyone to say we should have more skilled jobs, and that unskilled jobs should go, but we do need to provide people access to getting the new skills needed.

There are a lot of jobs that used to be done by people which are slowly being taken over by machines. One example I heard someone talking about a few months ago was the Stop-Go sign at roadworks. Still largely done by a man or woman getting covered in road dust or rain, but more often now I am seeing portable traffic lights controlling this instead.

hungrymama said...

I just wish the self-serve checkouts could work out how to handle non-standard bags rather than just freezing up when I try to use my fabric ones.

Julie said...

hungrymama, I wish they could create some kind of magical elven reminder thingy so that I don't leave my cloth bags at home or in the car! ;-)

Anna said...

I'm not a huge fan of non-gainful employment, but I'm also reluctant to dismiss jobs because they wouldn't suit me. When I was a student, I thought the women who served us the horrible kai in the Union had the worst jobs in the world - serving hordes of ungrateful dicks then clearing up the mess afterwards. Many of them absolutely loved it, though - it was the social hub of their lives and connected them with the world.

And as Julie says, getting rid of so-called unskilled jobs is only a good thing when there are alternatives for workers to go to (or when the jobs aren't shipped offshore to be done under exploitative conditions). I've got no problem with automating jobs (even when I can't work the new technology), so long as displaced workers have somewhere to go!

SMSD said...

I don't think these machines will be able to replace operators, as they do only seem suitable as a replacement for the express queues, and they do still require staff to hang around and supervise.

I'd have to say that i think these machines are pretty cool, like a library self-issue machine, only more so.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting that you put the automated checkouts in that light, but I wouldn't call it as drastic as "all checkout chicks are about to lose their jobs".

I'm on the outskirts of the supermarket industry, and automated checkouts have been on their way in for at least 3 years. As SMSD says, they won't be replacing full checkouts any time soon, and are a good replacement for the express line.

I do feel resistance to this technology is resistance to change. Like Milt said, when I was a teenager at a (now defunct) department store chain, we had to put stickers on everything - even I recognized that the double handling of stock was an inefficient use of time and resources.

What's the solution? As with all changes in retail technology, we simply glide with it. New technology is not necessarily a bad thing - remember on the other side of the story are skilled people building and servicing the machines, as well as writing the software for them. The jobs haven't been eliminated, just moved to a part of the industry that you don't see.

Anonymous said...

Technology is moving with the times and feminism has to move with it.

Julie said...

Where did anyone claim "all checkout chicks are about to lose their jobs"?

The library self-issue machines are a good example SMSD. I worked in a library for a little while and they were fantastic. most people didn't need the assistance of staff to take books out, and when the technology worked it freed staff up to do the other work necessary, and put real time into helping those who needed it. Libraries have also been able to expand the services that they offer, through technology, and through the time freed up from issuing. It's also worth noting that issuing books is quite hard on the body over time, due to the repetitive motions and the weight of books. So getting library patrons to do their own, maybe at the most 20 a week, means the staff don't have the impact on their bodies of scanning hundreds of books a day. (Although when I was there we still had to do the returns, which was pretty difficult to do for long).

Mikaere Curtis said...

Back in the '80s, a friend of mine applied for a job as checkout operator. He was told that only women could do it because "they have dexterous fingers".

The barcode scanner put paid to that, and now you see young men on the checkouts.

I remember the days when all supermarkets had a packer as well as a checkout operator. I'm happy to pay lower prices in return for packing my own groceries. Some goes for scanning, as long as it was for express checkouts.

Efficiently scanning a cartload of groceries does take more skill than the average person possesses, IMO, so I don't see non-express checkouts disappearing anytime soon - customers would quickly learn to avoid that supermarket.

I agree with comments about the fact that there needs to be a strategy around upskilling those that find their "unskilled" skills are obsolete.

Hendo said...

I have no problem with new technology - when it works. I am astounded by how often the automatic library machines are 'out of order', also the 'express lane' machines at Big W (this is in Canberra).

However I don't think we need to or should get rid of all the low-skilled jobs. They should be remunerated reasonably and you can't judge for everyone what would suit them best.

For example, hands up those who love their bank's automated voice menu, which all have now instead of people answering the phone... Yeah, just as I thought, crickets chirping!

My opinion on this is shaped somewhat by the experience of watching my mother be a housewife for 15 years, then finally get to enter the paid workforce. She started by running a laundrette with my dad, on top of being a part time librarian and Dad being a fulltime National Parks manager. A small business was too much stress, so she now works for a nursing home's laundrette. It's sociable, and she gets satisfaction from providing a service that's easy for her. I once asked her what she would have done if she worked outside the home and she said, 'I'd think I'd like to paint houses'. She's smart, but in her way. I have to admit, she didn't have every advantage in education, perhaps things would have been different. Somehow I think she still would have ended up in something hands on...

I think undervaluing this work is dangerously similar to the kind of undervaluing that is put on unpaid caring work.

Sorry if that was long and incoherent!

barvasfiend said...

When I was living in the US, our local supermarket had self service checkouts. They weren't an unmitigated disaster, but they were about as efficient as having an express lane.

Until I saw self service lanes in effect, I too thought being a check out person was unskilled labour. This was until I watched scores of well educated Americans struggle to buy a packet of bacon and a bunch of flowers in under 20 minutes.

Of the two main supermarkets in our area, many people were prepared to go to the slightly smaller, slightly more expensive one, because it had check out staff. The larger supermarket had self service with one polite staff member hovering over the doings of everyone else. Only people with a small amount of gorceries used the self service lanes anyway, so the majority of jobs were still there.

I got the distinct impression that the reason self- service didn't seem to be living up to its role as timeand money saver was that white, middle class Americans didn't like being shown politely how to work a simple machine, (over and over again) by a large black lady on minimum wage.

I went to the check out people everytime for the one same reason - the same guy was working most evenings when I went in...

M-H said...

My partner's mother is 87 and they have just brought in the automated checkouts at her supermarket. Her problem is that she can't easily lift some of her goods onto the counter where they are scanned. And she finds it all very confusing. Unfortunately, the very few checkouts with staff now have huge queues because at the time she shops most of the other shoppers are also elderly or disabled, and can't use the auto system either. So it's not working for her.

Bevan11 said...

Not sure this is a feminist issue, more of a technology one.

It's happened to men quite a lot too, with industries such as mining and car manufacturing taking huge job losses due to technology.

Any supermarket which had more than half their checkouts automated would be a bit foolish; it's not practical to expect all customers to use the machines.

The machines aren't as reliable as humans yet, and don't get the job done as fast as real checkout operators.

Perhaps the next generation will.

Bevan11 said...

Of course, it would be nice if the wages of the other supermarket workers went up now that less is being spent on checkout operators, but it's probably not likely ...

Anna said...

Bevan11 - v good point about the effects of job losses in manufacturing. Following the big global crash of the late 80s, young men got laid off at a higher rate than anyone else (and within that group there were big divisions by ethnicity too). When manufacturing went offshore and service industries burgeoned, more 'women's jobs' were created, but they were often low paid and casual. So recessions can have quite distinct but crappy effects on male and female workers. Kind of interesting, in a depressing sort of way.

Anonymous said...

I never use automated check outs simply because I don't want to do someone out of a job. I would feel bad walking past a person to use a machine. My mum would go mad if she didn't get to work behind the check out for a few hours a week and interact with human beings other than my dad.

Anonymous said...

Here in Auckland it is not necessary to use supermarkets, there are good local alternatives which we much prefer. They are not even necessarily more expensive, especially if you shop with Chinese migrants etc. Even so, as someone on an ok income I am much happier at Harvest or a Chinese supermarket in Newmarket than at Woolworths.