Retail Job Jeopardy

The nation’s fragile economy is finally starting to recover. However, some sectors are still shrinking. The retail sector, for example, lost 8,100 jobs between January and February. Some observers worry those jobs won’t return quickly, because employees are being replaced by machines. The applications seem endless. Vending machines sell iPods, pizzas and bathing suits. Robots stock shelves and load packages. Self-service checkout machines render checkout clerks nearly obsolete. The self-service machines are probably the ones you encounter most, at retailers such as Home Depot and Lowe’s. They make economic sense, as retailers try to save money in a tight economy. Machines don’t require health benefits or high salaries.

According to NCR Corp., which makes the machines, retailers can reduce the time customers wait in line by 40 percent by deploying self-checkout. They can increase the number of customers through checkout lanes by 20 percent, and can bump up revenue per hour (seven percent), by deploying employees to other parts of the store to help customers. Greg Buzek, of consulting firm, IHL Group, says retailers can also reduce labor in the front of the floor by 33 percent over two years by using self-checkout machines. The average wage for cashiers in unionized supermarkets in California is $22 an hour, Buzek says, so redeploying workers can save cash. Some technology advocates say this redeployment is a good thing, as workers can be freed up to do more valuable work.

Daniel Castro, a senior analyst with the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, estimates that if self-service technology was more widely adopted, the economy in the U.S. would grow $130 billion annually, and provide American families with an extra $1,100 in annual income, because of the growth of productivity. How it will affect the labor market in the short term remains to be seen, as many workers in retail say they’re having trouble finding work. Many have high school diplomas but no further education, and worry they won’t have the cash or the time to undergo retraining, if retail jobs are really gone for good. This story originally appeared in The LA Times. The full story is available at: