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Wednesday, Jun 18, 2008, 12:30 pm

Checking Out: Displacement in the Fast Lane?

By Brian Allen Anderson
Forget “paper or plastic.” How about “man or machine”?

Since 1998, retail self-checkout options have been attracting customers who favor speed and convenience over the traditional human checkout option. (In Chicago, for example, nearly 93 percent of Jewel-Osco grocery store locations now offer self-service options.) A 2007 report by Tennessee-based IHL Consulting Group credits continued customer satisfaction with self-checkout alternatives to these two time-sensitive factors.

Retailers like the self-checkout option not only because it can cut costs. Offering customers a greater role in shopping, it turns out, can secure customer loyalty. In a 2008 survey conducted by NCR, the Dayton, Ohio-based company whose NCR FastLane™ technology revolutionized retail self-service in 1998 (and whose partnership with the US Military developed the Eagle Cash program), 85 percent of consumers noted they choose one retailer over another because they offer self-service options. The fast lane now seems as much of a selling point as a retailer’s hot new item or best deal.

Yet fast-lane fanfare begs an important question: What of the worker? The checker? The teller? Do self-checkout options displace hard-working, diligent employees, many of whom have no other employment prospects outside the retail sector? Melissa Jankiewicz, 20, a Front End Cashier and Guest Service Representative at a Menards in southwest Chicago, says:

I see four self-service lanes in a store and can only wonder about the four people who could’ve used those jobs. I think that these machines are very capable of displacing workers, especially those who work as full-time cashiers. It appears to me that the better these machines are developed, the more they’ll be utilized in retail space, meaning that more cashiers are going to be out jobs.

In Chicago, Local 881 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) says it safeguards workers against the fast lane. Both Local 881, the collective bargaining representative for 36,000 workers primarily in Illinois and Northwest Indiana's retail food and drug industry, and the UFCW have actively tried to preserve and protect jobs affected by self-scanners and similar equipment. Says Elizabeth Drea, Public Relations Coordinator for 881:

There is language in most of our contracts that the employer must consult with the union prior to introducing new technological equipment that affects work performed by the bargaining unit. We’ve made it a priority to minimize the impact [of self-service implementation] on our members.

As a result, 881 and UFCW have noted no significant impact on the hours or jobs of members.

So is the self-service worker-displacement theory bunk? Maybe not. But is it a beast that can be tamed by the efforts of organizations like Local 881 and the UFCW? It would seem so.

Still, with regards to checking out, Drea puts it best:

Besides wanting to ensure that my actions do not cause reduction of hours for any worker, I enjoy the customer service and human interaction that takes place with a checker.
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