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PacificEdge | June 29, 2017

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Farewell checkout chick — hello machine

Russ Grayson

HAVE YOU NOTICED SOMETHING NEW at the supermarket? It’s not in all supermarkets yet, but it is soon likely to be. It’s at the checkout or, rather, it is the checkout.

I’m not  lover of the supermarket shopping experience but I do venture into the places on occasion. Such an occasion occurred recently when I walked into a supermarket in Sydney’s eastern beachside suburb of Maroubra. As to which of the supermarket duopoly’s shopping warehouses it was, I don’t recall… they are so similar that I find little to distinguish them… they blend together in the mind.

I noticed that there was something new when I made my way to the checkout. What was new was the checkout itself. It had gone, at least in its traditional form. Where there had once been a checkout operator there now was none. Instead, a machine stood ready to accept shoppers’ credit cards and a woman was there to help shoppers navigate the touchscreen and insert their cards — her job was to train the customer in this latest iteration of supermarket shopping.

I realised that I was witnessing the beginning of the end of the probably somewhat dulling but nevertheless income-generating job of checkout operator — what has become known as the ‘checkout chick’ on account of the preponderance of women occupying the position.

that avenue of low-demand work might be about to disappear

This was not the first time I had encountered an automated checkout. My first encounter had been some years ago in Lismore in what must have been an early trial of the technology. Now, it appears, the automated checkout is starting to appear in increasing numbers.

The role of checkout operator is not exclusively a female job. I had noticed that males have started to appear, both young men and those of late middle age for whom the work might offer employment in a job market that eschews the older male worker. Now, assuming the automation of the checkout proceeds, that avenue of low-demand work might be about to disappear.

Impact a job-shedding potential

Assuming that the presently small number of automated checkouts prove effective means of corporate cost-cutting and that they proliferate to replace most of the human checkout operators at some time in the not-distant future, what could their impact be, potentially?

there are those stubborn shoppers who like to interact with a human at the checkout

Would the disappearance of the operator have an impact in the newer, outer-urban suburbs where local jobs might be in short supply and where the work might provide the parents of young families the opportunity to shape working life around their parental and other responsibilities? And what impact on the working lives of older working people, now that the federal government is talking up the need to work later into life? One employment option less in an job market that doesn’t want older workers?

The job won’t go entirely, of course… there are those stubborn shoppers who like to interact with a human at the checkout despite the false smiles, the false ‘hello’ and ‘how-are-you’ they are greeted with. Then there are those troublesome others who prefer to deal in that traditional means of exchange — cash — you still need a human operator for that.

Open to criticism

The supermarket industry has become a target of criticism and it could be that an increase in the number of automated checkouts adds to this.

Criticism ranges from the lack of competition inherent in a market dominated by the two big chains through to the impact of supermarket buying policy on farmers and the consequent production of food waste, the impact of supermarkets on traditional streetfront shopping strips and the types of businesses trading there to the high energy consumption of lighting, refrigerating products and of air conditioning the often huge shopping warehouses we know as supermarkets.

the supermarket is sometimes the only source of food in a suburb

The impersonal experience of industrialised shopping that is part of buying your needs in supermarkets was highlighted for me when a friend mentioned how he walked along the laundry and bathroom products aisle unintentionally imbibing the volatile organic compounds outgassed by the products there. Don’t take my word, try it yourself and notice that, yes, that aisle does smell different and what exactly are those chemicals that we can smell?

These are all valid criticisms and some of them could be addressed through changing product procurement policy and through more energy efficient technologies, however they are beyond the scope of this article.

What is not is that critics sometimes fail to acknowledge that the supermarket is sometimes the only source of food in a suburb and that, as well as critique, what is needed are guidelines for sane supermarket shopping. Instructive here may be food writer, Michael Pollan’s prescription to shop the periphery of the supermarket where fresher and less-processed food are found. He calls most processed supermarket food products ‘foodlike substances’ because of their sometimes distant relationship to the foods they purport to be.

Software a shopping helper

Help in navigating the plethora of foods and foodlike substances found on the supermarket shelves is at hand, providing you own one of the newer multipurpose, handheld digital devices known as smartphones. There is already a free application for the Apple iPhone called ‘Shop Ethical’. The idea is that, as you shop the aisles, you can look up the ethics of the manufacturers of particular products, see whether the manufacturer is a Australian company and ask yourself whether the company’s behaviour is worth the support of your buying their product.

Looking up soy products > soy milk, for example, discloses that Bonsoy, a Spiral Foods product, is organically produced. Click the ‘assessment’ button and you learn that it is also GE free (not made from genetically engineered inputs) and that Spiral Foods is based at Unit 4, 56-72 John Street, Leichhardt, in Sydney’s Inner West. Click another button to learn that Spiral Foods manufactures soy sauce and ‘health products’ (type undisclosed) as well as soy milk.

Assessing products through handheld digital devices will likely become a practice of the discerning supermarket shopper

Flick downscreen to find that the Vitasoy brand is highlighted with a big bold black ‘X’ on a red background, in contrast to Bonsoy which carries a big bold black tick on a green background, that it is a product distributed by Lion Nathan Australia and is owned by Vitasoy Australia, both companies being awarded the big bold black X. A further click takes you to the ‘company focus’ screen that lists related companies and discloses that the company manufactures in Australia. The big bold black X signifies what the software describes as ‘criticisms’ of the company, which is one up from ‘boycott call’. A qualifier at the bottom of the screen tells you that ratings are based on the product parent company rating and do not signify the quality of the product itself.

Also now available for your handheld digital device (previously known as the ‘mobile phone’ to signify its single-use origins) are applications making use of augmented reality. Point your device’s camera at the product barcode and on the screen, superimposed over the product image, appears information to help you decide whether you want to support that product and its manufacturer.

Assessing products through handheld digital devices will likely become a practice of the discerning supermarket shopper, however the question must be asked as to whether shoppers disposed to make use of such tools and buying habits would purchase very much in the supermarket anyway. Even if they do not shop regularly in the supermarket, some of the products found in the application are likely to be stocked in organic food shops. This opens those premises to shopper-initiated, on-the-spot assessment of their product lines. Making product and company information available on-demand, on-the-spot, can be seen as a democratisation of the process of consumption.

Were this type of product assessment to become more widespread, is could reflect the popularity of products through their sales figures, and thus steer supermarket and organic industry buyers to stock more appropriate products.

Shopping the old-fashioned way

But none of this was available that evening as I stood in line at the checkout to buy a carton of milk so that participants in the community education course could enjoy the stuff in their coffee or tea.

Incidentally, it had been quite a walk to retrieve that single product from the rear of the store, as, in supermarkets, it is a marketing practice to place popular, everyday items such as milk at the rear of the store so that shoppers have to walk an aisle or two of other products in the hope that they will be sufficiently attracted by something to make an unintended purchase.

Oh, purchasing only a single product implies the use of cash, so it was to a young woman at the checkout that I handed my $5 note, avoiding interacting with yet another machine that day.

“Hello”, she said automatically but cheerfully, “how are you?”.

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