The day before a fully automated grocery store opened its doors in 1939, the inventor Clarence Saunders took out a full page advertisement in the Memphis Press-Scimitar warning “old duds” with “cobwebby brains” to keep away. The Keedoozle, with its glass cases of merchandise and high-tech system of circuitry and conveyer belts, was cutting edge for the era and only those “of spirit, of understanding” should dare enter.
Inside the gleaming Tennessee store, shoppers inserted a key into a slot below their chosen items, producing a ticker tape list that, when fed into a machine, sent the goods traveling down a conveyer belt and into the hands of the customer. “People could just get what they want – boom, it comes out – and move on,” recalled Jim Riot, 75, who visited the store as a child. “It felt like it was The Jetsons.”
Despite Saunders’s best efforts, the Keedoozle’s circuits frequently failed and the store closed for good by 1949.
But 72 years after he attempted to patenthis idea, advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, and other technologies are making the dream of a worker-free store a reality. And American cashiers may soon be checking out.
A recent analysis by Cornerstone Capital Group suggests that 7.5m retail jobs – the most common type of job in the country – are at “high risk of computerization”, with the 3.5m cashiers likely to be particularly hard hit.
Another report, by McKinsey, suggests that a new generation of high tech grocery stores that automatically charge customers for the goods they take – no check-out required – and use robots for inventory and stocking could reduce the number of labor hours needed by nearly two-thirds. It all translates into millions of Americans’ jobs under threat.
Alfredo Duran, a 37-year-old New Yorker, has been staring down that threat. He began his retail career at the Gap, taking part in that quintessential American rite of passage: getting a summer job in high school. Twenty-one years later – after a career that took him from fast fashion chains to department stores to high-end boutiques and saw him climb the ladder from cashier to visual merchandiser to store manager – he’s looking for a way out.
“Retail used to be a career,” Duran said. “You actually sat with your store manager and told them, ‘This is where I see myself in five years.’ No one thinks like that anymore. It’s just a warm body who can pick up the clothes that were thrown on the floor.”