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Will Amazon Replace Whole Foods Workers With Robots?

Topics: Current Events
whole foods

On Friday, Amazon and Whole Foods announced that the ecommerce giant will buy the grocery chain for $13.7 billion. The advantages for Amazon are clear: a chance to compete with Walmart in the grocery space, while shoring up their online retail supremacy; potentially solving the “last mile” problem in its supply chain by having customers pick up their own deliveries.

There are some obvious concerns for consumers in having one mega-retailer swallow up another. (Slate laid out an antitrust case; Wired argued against it.) But the biggest issue on many workers’ minds, especially those in the retail space, is whether the merger will affect jobs. Specifically, will Amazon automate jobs at Whole Foods, replacing human employees with robots?

The Future of Automated Retail

Amazon has already piloted an automated convenience store. Its Seattle-based Amazon Go store requires as few as three employees, tracking purchases with sensors. Results have been mixed — as of March, the store seemed to have trouble if more than 20 customers showed up. Still, Amazon has reportedly considered creating a supermarket version of the largely robot-run store.

But not necessarily at Whole Foods: a representative for Amazon told Bloomberg that the company has “no plans to use no-checkout technology to automate the jobs of cashiers at Whole Foods and no job reductions are planned.”

On the other hand, an anonymous source told Bloomberg that “Amazon is considering extending the cost-cutting effort with the no-checkout technology it’s developing at its Seattle convenience store, ‘AmazonGo,’” and using human workers to “help improve the shopping experience.”

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Robots Are Coming for Retail Jobs

Regardless of what happens at Whole Foods, retail jobs are under threat from automation. According to one report, as many as 47 percent of retail jobs could be eliminated in the next 10 years.

“You’re not going to see a robot stocking shelves, at least in the near term,” said John Wilson, head of research at Cornerstone Capital Group, which prepared the report. “But technology would reduce the need for as many people to do so. More efficiency means fewer things for people to do.”

A 2013 study from Oxford University showed that up to 47 percent of all U.S. jobs are vulnerable to automation. Among those most at risk? Jobs that involve a series of tasks that are easily replicated by machines.

In other words: cashiers are right to worry about their long-term job prospects, even if Amazon doesn’t opt to replace Whole Foods workers with robots right away.

Tell Us What You Think

Have you seen signs that your job may one day belong to a robot? We want to hear from you. Tell us your thoughts in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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