Will AI mark the end of the checkout?

The equivalent of 300 million jobs could be replaced by artificial intelligence (AI), according to a report released last week by investment bank, Goldman Sachs.

Amazon Fresh is a new type of grocery store that is using ‘AI’ to replace the checkout, meaning the customer just takes what they want from the store and then walks out – no-checkout required.

This system, also known as ‘Just Walk Out technology’, uses a series of in-store cameras and sensors alongside artificial intelligence, to process what you have taken off the shelves, which it will then charge to your linked Amazon card.

Amazon Fresh store in Canary Wharf, London (Photo: Joe Bunker)

There are currently 19 of these checkout-free stores in the UK, with the first opening in Ealing in West London back in 2021.

But this new type of technology has not come without criticism, sparking fears amongst many that if other retailers follow suit it could destroy jobs and even day to day social interaction.

The President of America’s largest retail union has already spoken out against these new stores, describing them as “a direct threat to 16 million American retail jobs… [and is] part of a ruthless strategy to eliminate as many good jobs as possible.” But others disagree.

Could checkout-free stores be good for the job market?

Timothy B. Lee, former reporter for the Washington Post, has written extensively about these new types of stores on his blog, ‘Full Stack Economics’. He believes these stores could actually be good for the job market.

Timothy B. Lee (Photo: Full Stack Economics)

‘If you go back to even the 1960’s, there are reports about how automation was going to destroy jobs and we were going to have this problem of mass unemployment, this is something people have been speaking about for decades.”

He continued, “But people are useful… so if you invent a technology that lets you run a grocery store with fewer human labourers, then people that are no longer working at the grocery store can do something else.”

“The economy is becoming increasingly service orientated, so we have a lot of need for nurses, for people to help take care of the elderly, people are traveling more so you need more people to run resorts and stuff like that.”

“People’s desire for goods and services is unlimited, and labour is scarce, and so if you can free up labour, you can produce more stuff and have a higher standard of living”.

He said, “one of the things that reducing labour requirements for something like a grocery store can do is it can make the store more cheap to run which means you can have more stores.”

Mr Lee also didn’t believe that these new types of stores would have a negative impact on the social interaction aspect of grocery shopping.

“I don’t necessarily think that the invention of automated checkouts will mean there’s nobody running a grocery store.”

“Grocery stores increasingly have prepared foods; they have counters for bakery or meat or categories of food where it’s labour intensive and so part of what I think you will see… is the role of people shift, so rather than just do the mechanical job of checking people out… they will be focused on doing custom orders for people – helping people find things.”

He continued, “so I think probably the average number of workers per store might go down but there’s still going to be workers in stores if you want someone to talk to.”

Other grocers are following in Amazon’s footsteps with companies including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Aldi all having opened checkout-free stores.

Listen to the full interview here:

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