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There’s an interesting battle brewing in Canadian retail sales, a battle between big companies, customers, and the people who do the legwork at the checkout counter.
Opposition has been building online to recent changes by Shoppers Drug Mart and Walmart, both of which have been expanding their use of self-checkout machines instead of cashiers. (Those two chains have had the most obvious recent expansion of self-checkouts, but there have also been gradual expansions at places like Canadian Tire and Loblaws-affiliated grocery stores.)
Customers complained that they were told at some Shoppers stores that if they wanted to use credit or debit cards, they had no choice but to use self-checkout terminals. The regular cashier line was for cash transactions only.
Shoppers head office said that was a misunderstanding by some of their affiliates, but the coverage focused attention once again on the self-checkout issue.
Some people love the machines, simply for their convenience. Others simply don’t like interacting with people, and prefer to deal with machines.
The self-checkout machine doesn’t spend money and help the local economy. It doesn’t pay bills. It doesn’t pay income or property taxes.
But there’s a substantial number of people who take a different view.
Getting everyone to use self-checkouts to save on labour costs is complicated issue.
The self-checkout machine doesn’t spend money and help the local economy. It doesn’t pay bills. It doesn’t pay income or property taxes. If use of the machines leads to a reduction of jobs, the profits from that simply go to head office.
You do the work that the cashier used to do — only you do it for free.
One Facebook user, Loretta Browder Lynxwiller, did her own calculation on what Walmart saved in employee costs for the seven minutes it took her to check in her 57 items, and extrapolated that saving across all Walmart customers, coming up with US$7.4 billion in labour costs savings for the shopping giant, throwing out the challenge “Don’t believe my math?... Do your own and let me know if I’m wrong.”
There’s an active and angry set of people on social media who simply say they will not use self-checkout machines, and if they are forced to do so by long lines at regular checkouts, or by the absence of checkout staff, they plan to take their business elsewhere.
As automation chews its way through the workforce — something that’s supposed to speed up tremendously in some job areas with the expansion of artificial intelligence into a host of professions — governments are going to have to find a way to recover the taxes they lose as workforce income becomes another profit centre for large businesses. (Smaller businesses often don’t have the kind of cash reserves need for the original outlay on automation.)
Eventually, it may mean something like a robot tax.
Pressing all the buttons yourself is a new kind of hot button issue.