Much of the ire over American job losses is directed at U.S. companies that choose to outsource work to other countries or at companies that apparently use instruments like H-1B visas to employ foreign workers who are willing to work for less than their American counterparts.
In contrast, relatively few folks seem bothered by self-service technologies that can help retailers and other businesses trim their current work forces or avoid hiring additional workers. Maybe it's because such technology rarely results in big, splashy mass layoffs, or because the jobs are perceived as lower value in the first place.
And of course, many folks view devices such as self-scanners as a welcome convenience. I, for one, prefer self-service options over the poor customer service that has become all too common in checkout lanes and other places.
According to the Washington Post, the numbers of jobs at department stores and food and beverage stores have fallen fairly dramatically over the last seven years -- and experts attribute at least part of the decline to retail technology improvements.
Retailers like Home Depot insist that devices such as self-scanners help them move humans from checkout lanes to the sales floor and other areas where they can provide better service to customers.
Loss of workers tends to be "very gradual and subtle," a spokeswoman for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union tells the Post. And, "... some advances in technology... has certainly made the working environment better for our members."
While investment in self-service checkout units is expected to grow from $380 million in 2006 to $457 million in 2007, according to IHL Consulting Group, such devices are not always a clear win for companies trying to cut costs. They cost about five times as much as a regular cash register and last about half as long. Retailers also worry about theft, and some have found that use of self-service devices means fewer sales of magazines, gum and other "impulse" items.
The Post article wraps with some expert predictions of stores where interactive mirrors, items embedded with RFID chips and other new technology will function as a kind of high-tech personal shopping assistant. I am not convinced that we'll see such enhancements in the relatively short time frames called for by the experts, as retailers tend to be pretty stingy. But I have no doubt that we will see more of them.