R2D2 is NOT at the Supermarket

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Automation and robotics, in theory, are a wonderful thing. They allow us to replace expensive humans with limited time to spend on the job with machines that can do the same work over and over again, without becoming tired, demanding raises or quitting for greener pastures, all while saving money and time.

One of the earliest places we have seen consumer-facing "automation" is the supermarket. I was reminded of this by the article, more of a rant, by Farhad Manjoo on the WSJ on self-checkout. Mr. Manjoo is displeased with self-checkout since it seems to fail so often, requiring much human intervention.

Self-checkout machines are cheap. Even accounting for the purchase costs, installation, maintenance and inevitable higher "shrinkage" (the retail industry term for when your inventory just shrinks for no visible reason, usually due to theft), a self-checkout machine is very cheap. Unsurprisingly, then, most supermarkets with self-checkout will have many more machines than human checkers, and the lines for them are much shorter. If automation is so great - and it usually is - then why do they willingly wait online for a human checker, rather than use the much short self-checkout?

Self checkout is not automation.

In an odd and rare twist of marketing, "self-checkout" is exactly what it sounds like: someone checking himself or herself out rather than having another human being do it. Self-checkout does not replace a human with a machine, but paid employee labour with free customer labour.

Let's look at the activities that a human checker does and see how they are replaced by self-checkout:

  1. Checker scans an item with a UPC code - customer scans an item with a UPC code
  2. Checker enters the fruit / vegetable code and adds it to the scale - customer finds and enters the fruit / vegetable code and adds it to the scale
  3. Checker puts item in a bag - customer puts item in a bag
  4. Checker takes and swipes credit card - customer swipes credit card

Self-checkout is not robotics or automation: it is outsourcing supermarket labour to the customer. It is self-checkout.

What would true checkout automation look like?

  1. Customer brings wagon to machine
  2. Machine either takes each item out of the wagon automatically, identifies it, weights it if necessary, and scans it.
  3. Machine puts items into bag.
  4. Customer swipes credit card.

For it to truly be automation, for Asimov's "Robbie" to be in the supermarket, it would need to replace labour performed by supermarket employees by robotic labour, not customer labour. If you want to save money while keeping your customer's experience the same (or better), you can charge the same price. If you are asking them to substitute their labour for yours, you'd better give them something for it. As the Manjoo article closes, "Unless the store gives me an explicit price break for scanning my stuff, why, exactly, should I be rejoicing about doing more work?"