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So Maybe the Robots Really Are Coming

Increasingly, more retailers are automating certain workplace tasks.
July 20, 2017

​NEW YORK – When a Walmart store began using the Cash360 machine to count currency, and digitally deposit the money at the bank, the retailer also replaced a task previously assigned to a human, who made $13 an hour counting cash and tracking the accuracy of the store’s book, writes the Wall Street Journal.

“They think it will be a more efficient way to process the money,” the employee, who has worked with Walmart for a decade, told the news source.

Nearly 4,700 of Walmart’s U.S. stores have a Cash360 machine, notes the Journal, which is making thousands of positions obsolete. Employees whose job function has been replaced by the machine have moved to other positions or left the company. “The role of service and customer-facing associates will always be there,” Judith McKenna, Walmart’s U.S. chief operating officer, told the news source, adding, “there are interesting developments in technology that mean those roles shift and change over time.”

Meanwhile, some economists say that many retail jobs can and should be automated. A 2015 Citi Research report found that two-thirds of U.S. retail jobs are at “high risk” of disappearing by 2030. “The primary predictor for automation is how routine a task is,” said Ebrahim Rahbari, an economist at Citi Research. “A big issue is that retail is a sizable percentage of the workforce.”

The Journal writes that self-checkout lanes “can replace cashiers. Autonomous vehicles could handle package delivery or warehouse inventory. Even more complex tasks like suggesting what toy or shirt a shopper might want could be handled by a computer with access to a shopper’s buying history, similar to what already happens online today.”

Automation is filtering through the retail industry. For example, Home Depot has self-checkouts in most stores and is testing handheld scanners for larger items like lumber. “We want to simplify the stores so that we can free up our associates…so they can focus on selling,” Carol Tomé, CFO of Home Depot, told the Journal.

CNBC also reports that half of American jobs are at risk from automation, according to a new study by Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research. “How Vulnerable are American Communities to Automation, Trade, and Urbanization?” combines several recent studies on employment trends to present a stark view of the future job situation for certain parts of the United States, notes the news source.