Supermarket Automation at Wal-Mart

We hate shopping at Wal-Mart but since the prices at the Wal-Mart Supermarkets are up to 20% less for the same items at Publix, and we are on a very limited income, we would be fools not to shop there.

No, we don’t want to give our money to the Walton family, but we really can’t afford not to shop there. Bittersweet reality, more bitter than sweet.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t ever shop elsewhere. Wal-Mart doesn’t carry everything and some of the stuff they carry isn’t edible/, so, yes, we stop at Publix for some things and Trader Joe’s for others, and occasionally break down and sneak into Whole Foods, but we spend the bulk of our food budget at Wal-Mart while making loud comments about how much we dislike the company.

Today, however, we were quite shocked by one of the changes they have made to the store.

There are no more cashiers. None.

Instead, there’s a row of self-service checkout counters and a single line of customers. Each customer gets sent to the next available checkout kiosk.

It’s very efficient. The line moves very quickly.

All of the older workers, the ones who were usually assigned to the cashiers’ stations, are gone. I knew them all by sight and I didn’t see even one of the older workers.

We almost always used the lanes with the human cashiers. It’s a shitty job, but it’s a job with benefits and we figured that, by using the staffed checkouts, we were helping to preserve those few jobs.

This leaves me wondering about how older people, people with infirmities, and people who have certain mental issues are going to be able to shop at Wal-Mart. They aren’t, because they can’t.

Those scanners can be finicky, and there are lots of products that have to be priced by weight, which requires searching for the relevant item on a look-up table, and it takes a certain amount of manual dexterity to scan and bag a shopping cart full of food.

This is a sign of the times, the disenfranchisement of people who, for one reason or another, cannot function in a computerized economic ecology. It is also a sign of corporate capitalism forcing shoppers to assume the roles formerly performed by employees.

This is an ongoing process, with automation invading and overtaking one occupation after another, but it really hits home when the “friendly” cashiers disappear from the retail environment.

Wal-Mart isn’t unique, of course. Target, Home Depot and Lowe’s have all installed self-service check-out kiosks in their home improvement stores, keeping only one or two cashiers available for unusual purchasing problems but, so far, Wal-Mart appears to be the only retailer that has eliminated human cashiers.

Awhile back, Whole Foods was tinkering with an idea that involved installing RIFD scanners on your shopping carts so that your account would be charged for each item that you put into the cart, allowing you to walk out of the store without even stopping at the check-out.

One wonders if the cost of installing RIFD readers and RFID chips on every single product really makes sense…but it would seem to make sense in order to inhibit shoplifting.

On the other hand, the self-service checkout systems actually encourage shoplifting since shoppers are actually being asked to honestly scan each and every product on the honor system because there is really no way to police self-service checkout lines.

The Wal-Mart self-service checkout kiosks all have built-in cameras that actually show you checking out your merchandise on the monitors attached to each kiosk.

The theory behind that video system is that it will prevent customers from shoplifting by reminding them that they are under surveillance, which is where the automated economy meets Big Brother technology.

People make honest mistakes. They forget to scan items because they never take them out of the shopping cart, and there’s no way – other than by establishing a pattern of behavior – to prove that someone intentionally “shoplifted” an item rather than honestly forgetting to run it through the scanner.

So, the question is whether human cashiers are more or less expensive than the increased amount of “shrinkage’ resulting from either accidental or intentional failures to run everything through the scanner.

Wal-Mart, obviously, has determined that the losses from shoplifting will cost the company less than the salaries and fringe benefits for the cashiers.

However, on our last visit to Wal-Mart, we noticed one very odd fact: While the older cashiers have all disappeared, they seem to have the same number of employees in the store at any given time, so it isn’t really clear how the self-service kiosks are saving money for Wal-Mart.

We contacted Wal-Mart customer service to ask that question. They had no idea what we were talking about.

We haven’t been to a “regular” Wal-Mart department store in years and we don’t consider it to be a worth the pain and suffering to visit one to see if the automation has spread that far yet.

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