Amazon Go Grocery: this is the future of shopping, whether we like it or not
Amazon has unveiled its Amazon Go Grocery in Seattle, expanding the initial concept of a store without tills, evolving from a simple convenience store selling a few products to a practically complete supermarket with sections of various types, including fresh products.
This is the next phase of Amazon’s “Just walk out” technology and its application to more complex shopping contexts, ridiculing the skeptics’ lightweight arguments against it. The value proposition here is clear: as you take the items off the shelves, you place them in your trolley in the same bags you will use to take them home. Go in, take what you want, and walk out the door, without standing in line. It couldn’t be simpler.
What’s more, the lower costs involved mean Amazon can offer its customers better prices than its rivals. But what Amazon really wants to do is to offer its customers a better experience, one that requires taking full advantage of the new technological environment. The complaints of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), which has criticized the company for jeopardizing millions of quality jobs and has threatened to make this a campaign issue in the November 2020 elections, ignore the fact that Amazon is actually the company that has created the most jobs in the United States in recent years, more than half a million, and also tends to pay its employees, even at the lowest levels, significantly above the industry average.
When the company launched its first store in beta mode exclusively for employees, I noted that there are more than three and a half million supermarket cashiers in the United States who are paid an average of $10.78 an hour (the minimum wage at Amazon is $15 an hour), with no formal education requirement, and with an estimated decline of -4% for the decade from 2018 to 2028. These forecasts do not seem to take into account the effects of the development and possible generalization of a technology such as Amazon’s, as well as the need for other competitors in the distribution field to incorporate similar technologies if they do not want to go out of business.
The future of distribution does not include workers on tills doing a job that, while it may seem reasonably dignified today, makes no sense. When, in a few decades, we tell our grandchildren that people used to work as cashiers in supermarkets and describes what they did in their day-to-day life, those youngsters will see that as a kind of slavery.
Eliminating jobs makes sense when they impose repetitive and dehumanizing routines on us and because they result in lower productivity and more errors than a machine produces. Ultimately, a technology like this does not seek to eliminate jobs, but to put humans where they really add value, rather than by carrying out meaningless mechanical tasks.
Amazon’s scaling up from small shops to large supermarkets is just another step in a process that, whether some like it or not, is called progress. This is what has led to the disappearance of many jobs that seemed normal in previous centuries and today we would consider meaningless. And there will be many more to come. How is the world economy going to accommodate the disappearance of more and more jobs? Are we going to console ourselves by thinking that a similar or greater number of other types of jobs will be magically created?
In this race for efficient automation, supermarket cashiers will soon be joined by drivers, brokers, assembly line workers and an ever-increasing range of jobs, while society will have to deal with the paradox that greater wealth generation through machine work may result in widespread impoverishment. To prevent this we need to redefine the social contract. Until we understand this, we will continue to try to measure the economy with the wrong indicators, criticizing interesting initiatives, reverting to religious approaches such as “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread”, and repeating the mistakes of the past.