But it has become increasingly clear that parts of every job will be automated — and that the service sector is next. Although certain service jobs like health aide or preschool teacher still seem safe, others, like those in retail and food service, are already being displaced. It’s not hard to teach a machine to do routine tasks like scanning bar codes, stocking shelves or dunking fries in oil.
Eight million people, 6 percent of American workers, are retail salespeople and cashiers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Cashier jobs are expected to grow 2 percent by 2024, significantly slower than 7 percent job growth over all, and technology is the main reason, according to the bureau.
Half the time worked by salespeople and cashiers is spent on tasks that can be automated by technology that’s currently in use, according to a recent McKinsey Global Institute report. Two-thirds of the time on tasks done by grocery store workers can be automated, it said. Another report, by Forrester, estimated that a quarter of the tasks salespeople do would be automated this year, and 58 percent by 2020.
Estimates like these are guesses at best, because imagining the future is an act of science fiction. And even when technologies exist, companies adopt them slowly. That’s one reason productivity isn’t increasing at the rate economists might expect, even though more work is able to be automated. But there is evidence that retail jobs are transforming rapidly.
Look no further than the Amazon Go store. It has no cashiers or checkout lines. People scan their phones to enter, and sensors with computer vision monitor what they put in their carts. When they leave, they are automatically charged for what they have bought. Amazon calls it “just walk out technology.”
Amazon Go is open only to Amazon employees for now, and has reportedly had problems during its testing phase, particularly when the store is crowded. But the technology will improve as Amazon and other retailers keep testing and developing it. Elsewhere, Amazon uses automatic payment technology, drones that deliver purchases, and robots that restock shelves and fill boxes.
Lowe’s stores in California have customer service robots that roam the aisles to answer customers’ questions and monitor inventory. The Eatsa chain of restaurants has no human workers in sight. Customers order on store iPads or on their phones, and pick up their meals from a cubby that shows their name. Several fast-food chains, including McDonald’s and Panera, also use digital kiosks for customers to order and pay by themselves.
Companies won’t invest in technology unless it’s less expensive than employing people, and most retail workers make near minimum wage. But in a case study of grocery stores, McKinsey found that the savings from automation were three times the cost, and 68 percent of the savings were from reduced labor costs.
Retailers say automating…