As e-commerce continues to encroach on brick-and-mortar stores, with online sales making up 10.8% of all retail sales in 2019, stories about Walmart’s new fleet of roving robot janitors and Amazon’s cashierless convenience stores stoke concerns that automation is making retail jobs obsolete. This specter of automation has haunted American retail workers for decades: In the 1990s, it was online shopping. In the 1980s, it was the selfservice kiosk. And for a brief moment in the 1970s, it was the barcode.
In the March 2, 1977, edition of In These Times, writer Anthony O. Miller described how consumers were not happy about a fledgling technology that was supposed to quickly identify any store item: the Universal Product Code, or UPC, commonly known today as the barcode. Miller summarized the scathing findings of a study commissioned by the retail industry:
“Forty percent of shoppers [had] difficulty seeing prices in scanner-stores, compared to 15 percent for conventional stores.”
“Price errors made by shoppers were ‘significantly larger’ in [UPC] scanner-equipped stores.”
“Shoppers [at the checkout stand] in conventional stores [knew] the correct prices 71 percent of the time, compared with 56 percent for shoppers in scanner-stores.”
“Forty-three percent of scannerstore shoppers switched to another store, compared with 26 percent for the conventional store.”
Consumers weren’t alone in disliking the new technology. From 1974 to 1982, labor organizations (including the United Food and Commercial Workers Union) were fighting for legislation to mandate individually marked prices on store items. Miller writes, “Reaction to the report from organized labor, which has opposed UPCs as a threat to jobs, was enthusiastic.”
Even retailers who adopted barcodes in the mid-1970s were skeptical, doing so only with the hope that it would, eventually, be cost-effective. By 1977 it seemed that digital price scanning was a dead end; the year prior, Business Week had run an article titled, “The Supermarket Scanner That Failed.”
Barcodes didn’t fail, of course. Through the 1980s, improvements to scanners made them ubiquitous. Nor did the spread of barcodes result in any measurable retail job loss. The barcode did, however, serve to massively expand the capacity of retail management to surveil and analyze worker behavior — like the number of items scanned per second — which can be used to decide who gets fired. In April 2019, internal documents revealed Amazon had developed a digital tracking system that can automatically fire employees who aren’t hitting production targets.
Data from the scanners also helped businesses track consumer behavior, underpinning the creation of the consumer databases that now track and collect even more information. The analysis of that consumer and worker data provides companies with new opportunities for profit. Most “free” online services are, essentially, mechanisms to track users and profit from their data.
Maybe we were right to be worried.