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The Seattle Times reports that the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) has blasted Amazon for its announcement of a new store, Amazon Go, that will operate without checkout lines and, by extension, without checkout personnel.

"“Amazon believes that America’s hardworking men and women are irrelevant to customers — they couldn’t be more wrong,” Marc Perrone, president of the UFCW international, said in a prepared statement, adding, "Amazon is masking its blind greed as progress ... This is not about improving customer experience: it’s about destroying good jobs, with no regard to the families and communities impacted. This is not the America that hardworking families want and deserve.”

The Times notes that futuristic technology "comes with a dose of angst for big parts of the workforce," and writes that "Amazon Go is bound to trouble those who fear the displacement of millions of relatively low-skilled jobs in an economy where automation has already taken a toll on manufacturing employment. Cashiers are the second-largest occupation in America, to the tune of 3.5 million jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics."

However, the Times also reports that Amazon "has argued that it’s creating plenty of opportunities for independent authors, merchants and startups that rely on its platforms. The company says that about half the items sold on its site are shipped by third-party sellers, many of which have lots of revenue and generate jobs."
KC's View:
I want to be careful not to in any way minimize the degree to which checkout-free stores could have an impact on people who need and value those checkout jobs. If you have one of those jobs, you don't look at Amazon Go as a really cool, futuristic innovation; you look it as a potential existential threat to your livelihood. (We have a couple of emails in "Your Views" that also makes this point.)

That said, I do think we need to keep this in perspective ... and think about it in terms of the big picture.

I don't think Amazon is motivated by corporate greed as much as it is motivated by the challenge of creating a shopping experience that gives customers what they want and need and that takes away the stuff that they don't want or like. And while there are plenty of good checkout people out there, there also are a whole lot of them who never make eye contact or engage in conversation with the shopper, and who seem more interested in talking to other employees than in any way helping to differentiate the shopping experience.

That's not entirely their fault - in many companies, and at many stores, they are treated and rewarded as mere functionaries, and not as an essential element in the retail environment. People who are treated and paid like functionaries tend to have very little motivation to transcend those roles. There's a reason that most shoppers hate the checkout experience at most stores.

Again, let's be clear. Not every store. Not every company. But certainly in enough places that Amazon saw an opportunity. So they moved on it.

Now, the difference between Amazon and other companies is that it is starting from scratch in the bricks-and-mortar arena. It isn't eliminating checkout jobs. Just not creating them. If other companies go down the same path (and one has to wonder if Amazon would be willing to license this technology to other retailers on a selective basis), they would, in fact, be getting rid of checkout jobs.

These retailers will have a choice. They can just cut the jobs out of the budget, believing that it will make the company more profitable. Or they can take a vast majority of those people and redeploy them throughout the store, in jobs that allow them to differentiate the shopping experience in a way that other retailers don't. Or, they can actually keep the checkout people and help them develop the kinds of skills that turn them into differential advantages.

Do stores like Amazon Go create a new reality for retail? Sure. Do they raise the bar in terms of technology? Absolutely. Are they likely to result in fewer jobs in certain areas of retail. Certainly.

But ... it doesn't have to be the end of the world. It will be if retailers don't rethink the retail environment, don't reconsider how they hire and compensate employees, and don't challenge the status quo. If they think small, they may cut their labor factors, but the results ultimately will be small. But what Amazon is doing has the potential to create big changes, and with big changes can come big opportunities.

I'm not surprised the UFCW is whining about this, because in the end, it is up to employers to determine which path they will walk. That poor cashier is caught in a maelstrom created propulsive technological tailwinds crashing headlong into corporate mindsets that often value efficiency over effectiveness.

It doesn't have to be the end of the world. But it probably is the beginning of the end of the world as we know it. What the new world looks like remains to be seen.