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Walmart, jobs and the rise of self-service checkout tech

January 16, 2013 06:25 AM ET

Bill Gribbons, a professor of information design and corporate communication at Bentley University, who also works on usability issues at the college's Design and Usability Center, questions the future of self-service kiosks. He said kiosk systems are more focused on getting rid of clerks, not on helping consumers. And that's why some stores have removed them.

"The value to the business is very clear," said Gribbons. "The value to the shopper is less clear."

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Gribbons believes more promising technologies will include tablets with card swipes integrated into shopping carts or smartphone apps. These technologies will be automatically synched with the customer's shopping list, and might include home ordering capabilities.

Instead of having customers stand in line at checkout, "the solution is to eliminate the lines completely, and then there is value to both the business and the consumer," said Gribbons.

Jerry Sheldon, an analyst at IHL Consulting Group, which looked at this technology trend, says Walmart's purchase solidifies front-end self-checkout kiosks systems as a mature tech choice. Walmart only invests in a technology "that they are going to be certain of a return on it."

The cost of the Walmart system was not disclosed, but a ballpark price of four units -- a pod -- is some where in the $70,000 to $80,000 range, said Sheldon.

Sheldon doesn't see kiosks systems going away, but believes stores may move to hybrid models that give shoppers an array of approaches to meet the unique characteristics of their customers. The impact on cashiers remains to be seen.

Daniel Castro, a senior analyst at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, says there are about 2.7 million cashiers working in retail. It's a number that should grow as new stores open, but would decline if fewer cashiers are needed.

Whether the technology affects employment depends on how checkout kiosks are used, said Castro. Some retail firms use self-service to reduce overhead costs; others use it to put more employees on the floor. People might also be able to move on to higher-value jobs, which includes managing self-checkout systems.

"The workforce changes raise an important question about how individual workers actually make the transition from one type of job to another," he said. "This is one reason why I think it is critical for the government to provide strong safety nets to families and education and training programs for workers so that people can adjust and prosper to changing circumstances in a dynamic economy," he said.

covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at Twitter @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed Thibodeau RSS. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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