Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2022/ Cashierless


Sunday marked a turning point for me. I went to the Walmart to buy junk food, and when I went to pay I discovered that Walmart had closed all the in-person cash lanes. Instead they directed you to their "self-serve" checkouts. Walmart (and many other retailers) had been pushing self-serve checkouts for a while, but until that point I had always had the option to have some minimum-wage cashier handle my junk food and then take my money.

Because I am a sheeple, I complied with Walmart's wishes. I stood in the self-service checkout line and went to the self-service machine and promptly got confused, because the machine explicitly said it did not accept cash. So I waved the self-service machine attendant over. Recognising that I was a clueless boomer, he scanned in my junk food then walked me over to a separate station where he processed my cash.

Before self-service checkouts, Walmart would have made sure that there were cashiers on duty. Now that is no longer necessary. I feel this marks a turning point. This incident may or may not have been intentional on Walmart's part, but Walmart is in the business of reducing its costs, and replacing five or six minimum-wage cashiers with one or two self-service attendants is clearly in the corporation's interests. By using the self-service checkouts Walmart outsources the job of scanning and bagging items to its customers (which it does not need to pay for the labour). This means Walmart has to pay fewer minimum-wage cashiers, and at some point it will not have to pay any. The other discount retailers will soon follow suit, and soon we will all be our own (unpaid) cashiers.

If any economists read my blog they would now point out that this frees up Walmart to reallocate those cashiers to much more interesting jobs, thereby increasing overall employment. I am skeptical of this.

I am not saying I love cashiers. I do feel this jobsolescence is bad news for some service workers who have not been able to get better jobs than minimum-wage labour at Walmart. I do not like that cashiers handle my junk food, and I don't particularly crave human interaction. But I like the implications of a cashierless society less.

I might be persuaded to use Walmart's self-service checkouts, because apparently I care about cheap chocolate bars more than I care about the well-being of minimum-wage workers. The real reason I avoid self-service checkouts is because I pay for junk food in cash. That is a hard line I am currently unwilling to cross. I do not have a debit card. I do not have a credit card. If if get my way I will never have either of these things. For one thing cash is (somewhat) anonymous, and unlike the rest of capitalism I feel this is a feature, not a bug. But more importantly, cash has more friction than credit or debit. When I pay for something in cash it hurts a little. When I am out of cash I have to go to the bank, which hurts a lot. The fact that paying for things in cash hurts is a feature, not a bug. In fact, I have orchestrated my life so that paying for things involves friction. Given how little self-control I have (see: junk food) using high-friction payment systems is imperative if I want to have any budget at all. That sounds like hyperbole, but it's not.

Unfortunately, Walmart and Amazon and all the other retailers hate cash. They want me to use some low-friction, trackable form of payment. So they are making it more and more difficult for me to pay for things using cash. We have not hit that turning point yet, but the fact that at a self-service checkout I have to wave the attendant over to pay is a bad sign. For a while Walmart had both self-service and cashier-staffed checkouts. Now that we are used to self-service they can take the casher-staffed checkouts away. The same thing is happening with cash.

I feel the demise of cashiers will happen, but it does not have to be. There is an easy way that people (including me) could resist this transition and encourage Walmart to staff its cashier lanes:

If enough people abandon their purchases then Walmart is in a bind. They have to pay minimum-wage workers to either restock those abandoned items or throw them out. Either way Walmart loses money. As far as I know you are not committing a crime. You entered the Walmart with every intention to pay, but Walmart did not provide an appropriate mechanism to do so, so instead of stealing the items you left them.

Maybe Walmart would then want you to be an unpaid shelf-stocker instead of an unpaid cashier, and tell you to put your items back on the shelves if you are not going to purchase them. If this happens there is nothing saying you have to restock the items in your grocery cart in the correct location.

If middle-class people who buy lots of groceries at Walmart did this then Walmart would change its mind and continue operating cashier lanes. This would be more effective than any boycott, I feel. However, I doubt I will engage in such civil disobedience myself. I look too homeless, and would be harassed and/or arrested. More likely I will just check to see whether cashiers are on duty before starting my shopping. But this is cowardly, and will not change the system.

Update (2022-04-13)

Since writing this entry I have stopped into a couple of other Walmarts to observe the checkout situation. The Walmart at Pinebush and Hespeler Road in Cambridge had no cashiers on duty. The Walmart near St Jacob's Market had one. There are a few more Walmarts to investigate, but I am fairly confident that overall Walmart has stopped staffing cashiers.

Why was there a cashier at the St Jacob's Walmart? I suspect Mennonites. This Walmart accomodates the local Old Order Mennonite population by providing horse and buggy parking. Sure enough, when I was at this Walmart there were two Mennonite women ahead of me in line with two shopping carts filled to the brim with stuff. They spent hundreds of dollars on their trip, and I bet Walmart does not want to lose that business.

I will also note that at least two people behind me in line saw the two shopping carts filled with the brim and balked; they went to the self-checkout stations instead. There are some lessons here. First: Walmart's bet is correct: if it does not staff cashiers most people will opt for self-checkout without too much grumbling. Second: If populations Walmart cares about refuse to use the self-checkouts, then Walmart will accommodate them.

(The other interesting thing is that these Mennonite women paid for their purchases using a bank card, not cash. So my hope that keeping cashier checkouts open will mean I can continue spending cash is likely in vain.)

Update (2022-06-10)

I have again stopped in at a few Walmarts, and now it seems that they are consistently staffing cashiers. I wonder what changed?