But one also has to wonder what will happen to the nearly 1 million Americans who work in supermarkets, ringing up purchases and bagging groceries, across the country.
When more than 900 shoppers were asked what Amazon should add or change at Whole Foods locations, the top response was adding “cashier-free checkout,” according to a poll conducted by ChargeItSpot, a leading provider of cell-phone charging stations for retailers, including Nordstrom, Under Armour and Neiman Marcus.
Also of interest were “lower prices” and “in-store pickup for Amazon purchases,” the survey found.
To be sure, Amazon has said it has no current plans to automate the jobs of cashiers in Whole Foods’ stores after it finishes acquiring the grocery chain. It also isn’t planning any layoffs, according to an Amazon spokesperson. But speculation continues to build. Especially when there are reports claiming that half of all American jobs are at risk from automation.
“When Amazon announced they would be expanding into the grocery space, shoppers were interested to see what new features would be implemented in these stores,” ChargeItSpot’s CEO Doug Baldasare said.
“Our survey found that shoppers want the Amazon-Whole Foods merger to upgrade the grocery store experience with additions of useful technology.”
The deal between Amazon and Whole Foods, should it pan out, will advance the process of replacing people with technology, Ian Siegel, CEO of job marketplace ZipRecruiter, told CNBC.
“We already have self-checkout stations, and Amazon has demonstrated that even more advanced ‘check-out’ technology is possible.”
The internet giant has even released a video showing what a futuristic store concept, called Amazon Go, looks like — no lines, no registers, only “just walk out” technology. Amazon Go is currently open for the company’s employees at a test location in Seattle.
ZipRecruiter’s Siegel said that a gradual shift in supermarkets’ employment structure will also open up opportunities in new types of retail jobs, such as consultative sales, distribution and logistics within the grocery chains. So, cashiers shouldn’t fear being out of a paycheck altogether, but instead looking to employ their service skills elsewhere.
The latest count from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows there were 867,920 grocery cashiers in the U.S. in 2016. Since the start of the year, the U.S. economy has shed roughly 71,000 total retail jobs, the BLS said. “Advances in technology, such as self-service checkout stands in retail stores and increasing online sales, will continue to limit the need for cashiers.”
ZipRecruiter further found that job postings for grocery positions, which would include cashiers, were down 24 percent in the second quarter of this year compared to last year. Demand is evidently waning.
“I think what we’re seeing here is one more chapter in a rapid transformation of the industry,” National Retail Federation President Matthew Shay told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Wednesday, discussing technology’s impact on retail jobs.
“As we become more productive as human beings, and we divide labor properly … the low-skill repetitive kinds of things that can be done by machines are done, [and] that frees up human beings to do the higher things.”
This trend “ought to make [retail employees] more productive and ought to create better jobs,” Shay said.
Grocery stores and big-box chains like Kroger and Target, for example, aren’t going to “turn back the clock” on artificial intelligence and machine learning, but they’re investing “massive” amounts of money in these new technologies as they develop, the NRF CEO added. “They’re going to create more jobs in other parts of the business that should be good for everybody.”
A cashier-less checkout process in grocery stores is not a new idea — many supermarket chains had already installed self-checkout kiosks in stores, before the Amazon-Whole Foods announcement. But the problem remains there are still kinks in the concept — in many instances, a human being must be called over to assist in the checkout process. The kiosk can be slow, and the procedure can become confusing, especially for those who aren’t used to interacting with so much technology.
Amazon now has the opportunity to fix a broken system — or at least make some much-needed upgrades.
“There’s a reason why cashiers continue to have substantial employment,” Mark Hamrick, an economic analyst at Bankrate, told CNBC in an interview. “Because other technology is not ready for prime time, [and] it doesn’t feel as if efforts to make it better have been successful.”
“It’s incumbent on Amazon to innovate … things that would be along the lines of being able to monitor your grocery bill in real time.”
Like many others, Hamrick agreed that cashier jobs will not be eliminated entirely but will be moved to other areas of the grocery store — handing out samples of food and interacting with shoppers, he suggested.
The cashier-free concept is growing in popularity due to high consumer acceptance and the benefits it offers — mainly saving time, financial services firm Cornerstone Capital wrote in a recent report.
“Amazon is likely to invest [in] major productivity gains in the entire supply chain and look across its businesses, in contrast to a pure retailer that is trying to reduce costs and generate ‘smallish’ productivity gains through automating staff,” Sebastian Vanderzeil, an analyst with Cornerstone Capital, said.
One major investment could be in expanding Amazon Go.
It remains to be seen when Amazon will roll out Amazon Go locations across the U.S., should the trial run prove successful. Or, Amazon might choose to utilize the “just walk out” technology in Whole Foods — another strategy being floated around.
“Among the reasons why the Amazon-Whole Foods deal was stunning, was that prospect for innovation,” Bankrate’s Hamrick said.
A representative from Amazon didn’t respond to CNBC’s request for comment.