Capitalist supermarket automation: Driving down wages, cutting jobs, boosting profits

Opening day on 4 March 2021 for the first fully-automated, no-checkout Amazon Fresh store in Europe. Located in the Ealing Broadway Centre, Ealing West London, photo Roger Green/CC

Automation is on the rise and the use of new technology means that an estimated 90% of UK employees will need to retrain by 2030, resulting in massive changes for workers, and everybody in retail, as shops change.

Retail analysts predict that not only could staffed checkouts disappear from supermarkets, but checkouts themselves.

The march towards 100% self-service checkouts is already underway. I walked into my local supermarket recently to discover that a few banks of staffed checkouts had been taken out to accommodate more self-scan machines, and completely self-serviced Amazon stores are popping up on high streets.

But ‘just walk out’ technology, which allows companies to get rid of all tills, is also on its way. Supermarkets like Sainsbury’s already offer ‘SmartShop’, which allows shoppers to scan as they shop and pay at the till. This technology could go even further, meaning customers would only have to have a phone app on entering the store. Cameras and sensors would then identify products they take from shelves, with the bill settled electronically. No physical checkout is needed, and the customer can ‘just walk out’.

Tesco and Aldi are trialing such technology, Aldi in a checkout-free supermarket in south London, and Tesco at its HQ in Welwyn Garden City, in a store used by staff.

Such revolutions in shopping are not new. ‘Self-service’ supermarkets like we have today, and their growth in Britain during the 1950s and 1960s, completely changed shopping from how it was done before, bringing everything together under one roof in large stores and allowing shoppers to pick items themselves before taking them to checkout. Before, shoppers had to give their order to a member of staff who picked goods from behind a counter.

Analysts claim that the new revolution could only be a few years away, and one has said the cashier is “ripe for automation.” But there is opposition. Many, especially older people, refuse to use self-scan checkouts and prefer a staffed one, let alone the prospect of having to use a phone app with no checkout at all. Having to be able to use and afford a smartphone is one issue; another is the decline in the use of cash, accelerated by the pandemic, and the worry for some that it is also on its way out.

Social spaces

Another is simply wanting to be served by a person. Supermarkets have long been social as well as shopping spaces, and that applies to staff too. For many elderly, vulnerable, or lonely people, a cashier could be the only person they get to talk to. In the Tesco store I worked in, we were on first-name terms with many customers, and staff was part of the community. The mass closures of counters in many companies have also impacted this.

Of course, even in a checkout-less store staff would remain on the shop floor, but why shouldn’t shoppers be able to be served by someone if they want to? Also, the instinct of many workers who refuse to use self-scan machines is that they are ‘job-killers’. And this is how the bosses use new technology, to get rid of hours and workers meaning fewer staff in-store and more work for the remaining few. Getting rid of workers will not result in lower food prices either, just more profit for the bosses.

At the 2022 conference of Usdaw, the shop and distribution workers’ union, shop stewards spoke during the debate on automation, staffing levels, and new technology. One said: “One shopworker is expected to keep an eye on eight or more self-service tills”. “It’s our colleagues who suffer the consequences”, said another.

Checkouts are also just the most visible form of supermarket automation, the tip of an iceberg that stretches into warehouses and supply chains, particularly in terms of stock control and ordering. In Japan, shelf-stacking drones are even being piloted.

The pandemic showed the vital role shop workers play in running society, putting their health and lives on the line to keep the country fed. The short-term nature of the supermarket industry’s ‘just-in-time’ supply chain was also exposed during the pandemic, as an increase in demand followed the order for people to stay at home.

The goods people wanted and needed were sitting in warehouses, but companies carried on using the same algorithm. During the first lockdown, Easter eggs were being delivered to stores instead! The same companies are in control of implementing checkout automation. The same bosses will use new technology to sack workers and increase profits, with little regard to the wishes and needs of shoppers. There are also issues of how management is using new technology to have greater control over work and hours.

Trade unions must oppose any job losses as a result of automation. Usdaw issued a national executive council statement on technology and automation at its conference. It calls for job security and training for workers to move to different roles as the industry and society change and implement new technology.

This is correct but should be much firmer. Job security should mean no job losses, and job changes should only be with the agreement of workers. An Usdaw survey in 2021 found that 90% of workers reported that their employer had failed to consult them on the implementation of new technology.

We can’t trust the bosses, companies, and their capitalist system to use this new technology to its full potential.

Instead of just benefitting the shareholders with generous dividend payments and increased profits, new technology should be used to make the job of a shop worker as easy as it can be, and to introduce a shorter working week, without loss of pay.

A well-organized trade union, prepared to lead members in taking on the bosses, can win some of these demands. But decisions about how to implement automation in privately owned supermarkets ultimately remain with profiteering shareholders.

Democratic public ownership of supermarkets would put these decisions into the hands of workers themselves. New technology could be used to make the shopping experience as easy and enjoyable as possible, with self-service checkouts or none at all for those that want it, while still having staffed tills for those that do.

The democratically decided application of technology could just be one part of a transformation if there was public ownership and democratic planning of supermarkets and agribusiness. If the food processing and retail industries were under workers’ control, the input of everyone all along the chain would be possible including small farmers and small shopkeepers.

To fight for socialist change, with big business and the banks nationalised and run under democratic workers’ control as part of a socialist plan of production, we need to get organised and fight for it. We need to join and build unions that fight for workers’ interests on the automation battlefield and, linked to this, a new political alternative, a new workers’ party that will fight the corner of the working class against capitalism and its representatives.

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August 2022