Amazon Fresh and the creeping rise of automation

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Amazon Fresh promises to be a revolutionary shopping experience which would make going to the supermarket as convenient as possible. Upon entering the store, on first inspection it looks like any other regular supermarket. The fruit and veg is in its usual place, as is the wine and beer isle. There is one noticeable feature though: the conspicuous absence of staff. 

The first major cashier-less supermarket in the UK, Amazon Fresh have replaced cashiers with cameras. Through a series of cameras and sensors strategically placed around the store, everything shoppers pick up will be automatically placed in their Amazon basket. Once they finish shopping and leave the store, the payment is taken from their Amazon account balance. 

Some may see this as Amazon delivering a smoother shopping experience – removing the hassle of having to queue in line at the checkout and make small talk with the overly friendly cashier who scans your items at a snail’s pace. However, this recent development is rather worrying and is yet another example of automation creeping into our everyday lives. 

By removing cashiers altogether, many full time workers will end up losing their job if Amazon Fresh’s business model turns out to be a successful one. It is correct that, as of the time of writing, this is only one store, but supermarkets are businesses first and foremost and when they realise they are able to maintain their revenue by employing fewer staff, they will jump at the opportunity. 

Technological advancements in terms of the way we shop is nothing new, and over the span of the last decade we have gradually seen robots replacing retail workers. Self checkouts were futuristic and strange when they were first introduced, but now they seem almost normal. The ability for customers to ‘scan as you shop’ in Tesco and Sainsburys is yet another example of supermarkets automating their shopping experience and keeping their costs low. Gradual automation has been happening for years, and the removal of cashiers entirely is simply the next logical step forward in terms of technological progress. 

However, just because it would be quicker and more convenient doesn’t make it a perfect service. For many elderly people, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, going to the shops and interacting with a recognisable face may be one of the only interactions they have that day. Automated checkout machines already put a quarter of older people off from going shopping, so how would they feel when everything is electronic and cashier-less?

In terms of the impact on jobs and the retail sector, the effects will be staggering. What appears like added ease and convenience to the consumer means the threat of redundancy for those full time shop workers who need to provide for their families. 23.3% of supermarket checkout jobs were cut between 2011 and 2017, with further automation inevitably meaning more job losses. It has been reported that automation threatens the job of over 1.5 million workers in Britain alone, and worldwide robots are expected to do half of all work tasks by 2025

This is a global problem, and arguably one of the biggest challenges facing society in the next 10 years. With millions of jobs being replaced with robots and not enough low skilled roles to go around, the world will see what Noah Yuval Harari refers to as a ‘useless class’ of people. Through no fault of their own, their job packing boxes or picking orders will be replaced by obedient robots who do not tire, do not need pay, and do not require rest breaks. Indeed, many jobs will be created in the software industry, but these are highly skilled, specialist jobs. What about the majority of people who did not attend university and study computer science or engineering?

As with many of these problems too, the consequences will hit those in developing countries the hardest. If millions of Bangladeshi textile workers lose their jobs to automation, finding new industries in which people can work will be challenging. With poorer welfare states and social safety nets than the more developed states, the worry is that many people will start to fall through the cracks. 

Though concerning, the introduction of Amazon Fresh is a symptom of a greater systemic problem. We will look back on Amazon Fresh as the precursor to the mass exodus of retail jobs to automation. Soon governments will realise the scale of the issue when thousands more become unemployed, but by then it will be too late. Many jobs in the retail sector will disappear, with the masses asking: ‘What now?’ 

Words by Jack Crockford

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