Is kiosk use similar to offshore outsourcing?

Elevators once had attendants. When elevator operators were replaced by buttons, did shoppers start using stairs in protest?  I don’t think so, but going to the human cashier at my local Safeway or Giant feels like an act of resistance.

The alternative is the automated checkout. I wonder: Do cashiers see self-service systems as threats?

Elevator self-service probably had limited impact on employment, but kiosks are different.  The deployment of self-service kiosks in retail is beginning to feel like offshore outsourcing around 1998-2000. That’s about the point where IT offshoring was just winding up.  

It wasn’t until the economy retreated, post bubble, that it became clear just how much of a threat offshore outsourcing was to service jobs.  

In one widely cited study, Princeton economist Alan Blinder tallied up all the jobs, in every industry, that could be lost to offshore shoring. Using 2004 as the benchmark year, he estimated that 29 million workers were vulnerable to offshoring, or over one-fifth of the total U.S. employment.

How many jobs are vulnerable to kiosk deployment? There’s no clear answer.

The kiosk issue is complex. The kiosk ROI isn’t necessarily through labor savings. If you order movie tickets online and either print them out at home or pick them up at a theater lobby kiosk, does this reduce the need for ticket sellers? Or does it improve the ability of a theater to draw people who might otherwise wait until the film is available on Amazon or Netflix?

The airline check-in process was chronically dysfunctional before the advent of electronic ticketing kiosks.

Self-service is arguably part of a broader consumerization trend. The advances in interactive devices on display this week at the big CES show in Las Vegas will find their way into kiosks, encouraging deployment. Whether consumers use them or not is something else.

There are accounts of stores installing kiosks and then pulling them out after customer complaints. Is this a fixable technology issue or evidence of underlying consumer resistance? Do consumers connect kiosk use with their own concerns about jobs? 

Job growth today is anemic. How much of that is due to offshoring is unknown. Public companies aren’t required to break-out employment by country.

Kiosk deployment creates a similar job tracking problem. It will be easy for a fast food restaurant, for instance, to add self-service kiosks to supplement order-taking staff. If customers use kiosks, the restaurant may need fewer workers. In a high-turnover industry such as fast-food, labor data may show a slowdown in industry hiring, but not the reason for it.

It would be more useful to know how many jobs were actually lost to offshoring, but there is no comprehensive data “on the number of production and services workers who have lost their jobs as a result of the movement of work outside U.S. borders,” said the Congressional Research Service in a recent updated report about offshoring and its impact on jobs. The government’s data collection effort falls short, the report said.

Replacing a human cashier with four automated systems will have its appeal. In the retail employment landscape, an IT manager’s deployment of self-service kiosks may be to retail workers what the hiring of Indian offshore contractors is to IT workers.  I don’t know whether that’s irony.


Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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