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News Roundup: Grocery Cameras Used to Profile Shoppers

August 30, 2019 Updated: September 8, 2020

Walmart Automation Hurts Customer Service

America’s largest retailer is increasingly shifting toward automation through self-checkout and in-store robots, but both are hurting customer service and could undermine future revenue as stores reduce staffing. Walmart began using self-checkout in the early 2000s, and in-store robots were recently introduced with 50 added in 2017 and 350 rolled out earlier this year. Some robots are designed to scan shelves and reduce time-intensive work done by human workers, but employees still have to refill the shelves when the robot finds a missing product.

The tech company behind Walmart’s robots looks at their addition to stores as a “valuable lab for researchers to experiment with human-robot interaction,” but the shoppers in this “experiment” aren’t too thrilled.

One Walmart shopper said, “It seems like we’re being asked to do everything and we’re not gaining anything by doing it. I’d prefer to have somebody, to speak to somebody. I don’t like the whole idea of working with a machine all the time.”

There is no customer service anymore,” another customer added, expressing concern about possible job losses due to the service. A third shopper said, “I’d like a little bit of service for the money I’m paying.”

New Report: Automated Economy Drives Up Inequality

As we move to a more automated workforce, predictions of job losses have ranged from moderate to severe. But a CNN overview of an automated American future shows that those who have studied the problem think that increased automation will lead to more inequality.

One study predicts that “a wide range of middle-income occupations will have the largest employment declines.” This radical inequality may require us to completely rethink how we structure work – including possibly working fewer hours and ensuring that workers share in the gains of their increasing productivity.

Retailers Increase Surveillance of Shoppers

We’re used to the standard security camera watching us enter and exit our local corner store – there in case of a robbery or to discourage theft. But our future could see these cameras used to do a lot more. In Kroger stores, cameras are now being used to guess the age and gender of shoppers and Walgreens is using cameras to track where your eyes are looking. Some fast food chains are looking at cameras that would customize your menu based on your license plate.

This might lead shoppers to hesitate before buying anything private at their pharmacy or ordering that double cheeseburger too often – everybody with access to the database will know.

Protests in France Over Grocery Self-Checkout Replacing Workers

Protests broke out in northwestern France, as a supermarket used self-checkouts to stay open on Sundays. Employees of large stores in France are prohibited from working past 1:00 pm on Sundays which traditionally leads to store closures – but the Géant Casino de la Roseraie is keeping Sunday hours by using only self-checkout machines. In response, protestors associated with the “Yellow Vest” movement occupied the store, tipping carts and blocking entrances.

Local officials called the move by the store “dishonest” and said that they oppose the use of the loophole by companies. In addition to the public outrcry, the supermarket chain clearly was also not considering the impact this move would have on customer service. As more companies shift toward automation and fewer employees, the human touch people look for at the grocery store is becoming more rare.

Number of the Week: $5 billion

That’s how much companies worldwide are expected to spend annually on self-checkout systems by 2025. That’s almost double the current size of the market. Not included in the report? The dollar value of the jobs eliminated by the spread of these machines.


Any upcoming stories about the impact of automation on the retail industry and the economy?

If you’re interested in speaking with UFCW, email awhite@www.ufcw.org for a quote, statistics, or interviews with workers in retail and other sectors of the economy.