Lester Watson began ringing up customers some 40 years ago at a five-and-dime store before he landed a job at Hutzler’s, the longtime Baltimore department store. He wrote up sales tickets by hand at first, calculating how much, with taxes, a customer owed. Later, he punched numbered keys on a cash register that did the math for him.
Now, the 59-year-old cashier works at Graul’s Market in Ruxton, all but teaching a master class in customer service. As he scans product codes into what’s now called a “point-of-sale system” — it tallies the total, accepts electronic payment and prints a receipt — Watson asks a woman about her ailing husband, greets another in Spanish and uses a Sharpie to write the room number on a paper bag being delivered to a customer from the nearby retirement community.
“We can be replaced by a self-checkout machine. I would rather have someone on a one-to-one basis ring me up. It’s more hospitable,” Watson said. “I’ve been here 23 years, and I know my customers by name. You get to know their wants and needs.”
The number of cashiers in Maryland has grown steadily for decades, and more than 80,000 people work as cashiers in the state’s grocery and department stores, pharmacies and boutiques. An occupation practically as old as the economy, the job employs more people here than any other, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
But the job is also among the most likely to be replaced by machines. Many bigger stores already offer the option of self-checkout, shifting the task of scanning and bagging items onto customers who then pay a computer that spits out change and receipts.
Economists say many cashiers’ jobs will go away over the next decade, but an estimate on just how many is elusive. That number depends on how soon the next recession hits, what consumers prefer and whether companies want to double-down on customer service or cut prices by replacing workers with machines.
“It happens slowly without you knowing it,” said Kristen E. Broady, a visiting professor of economics at Alabama A&M University. “You don’t remember the exact date you went to Walmart and there was self-checkout. There wasn’t one day when there was 30 cashiers and then one day when there was five.
“Companies want to do this. Machines don’t require overtime or health benefits. There are no HR issues with machines.”
Cashiers work all hours, nights, weekends and holidays. Typically, they train on the job and require no formal education.
For many people, cashiering connected them to the world of work as a first job — and served as an important source of income, said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. He studied how machines are affecting the workforce and communities for the Washington think tank’s report on “Automation and Artificial Intelligence.”
“It is a deceptively important activity,” Muro said. “Every economic transaction has an exchange of money. This is a central activity to cities and the local economic life.”
Automation is already taking its toll. Giant, Walmart and others have installed self-checkout lines. McDonald’s has set up ordering kiosks. Amazon Go stores have no lines, no registers and no cashiers. As e-commerce grows, many brick-and-mortar stores such as Sears and Toys “R” Us have closed.
Economists predict that if cities like Baltimore do not focus on readying workers for other employment, automation and other artificial intelligence could bring a reckoning as rough as the fall of the manufacturing sector, which shuttered factories and devastated blue-collar livelihoods.
Like people in most jobs, cashiers have worked alongside technology as registers evolved — from mechanical adding machines that also stored cash into complex computer systems capable of processing electronic payments instantaneously and helping manage inventory. But in recent years, the number of self-checkout kiosks has grown. The pace is expected to accelerate when companies look to cut costs during an economic downturn.
The London-based consulting firm RBR estimated that 125,000 self-checkouts were in use in U.S. grocery, convenience and drug stores by the end of 2017, up from about 95,000 in 2014. The figures do not include self-checkout kiosks in restaurants. By 2023, the firm projects that the number worldwide will reach nearly 450,000.
The largest vendor of self-checkout systems is NCR, a global technology company founded in 1884 as the National Cash Register Company. Tom Chittenden, NCR’s general manager for retail products, said traditional brick-and-mortar stores are finding new ways to compete amid the changing preferences of consumers from aging Baby Boomers to Generation Z, who are coming of age and acquiring true spending power.
Sprawling grocery stores are focusing more on fresh produce, meats and dairy, as well as deli and prepared meals, as people increasingly order non-perishable items online. Convenience stores are growing larger with big selections of grab-and-go food. And stores are shifting workers from traditional roles, like cashiers, to new positions that focus on “clienteling,” or working to build relationships and use data to offer personalized services.
The days of mom-and-pop corner stores that take customers’ face-to-face requests and stock their shelves accordingly may be passing, Chittenden said. But now computers curate personalized shopping experiences, and targeted sales are a new frontier for customer service.
The movement toward mobile scanning and payments by app adds to the change. Each retailer has to figure out what mix of technology and human connection works best for its shoppers, Chittenden said.
“Different generations approach a transaction very differently,” he said. “The smart retailers are the ones who recognize that and cater to the customers.”
Graul’s in Ruxton feels like a nod to a bygone retail era, with cashiers waiting on customers in all of the checkout lanes.
Karen Curlett pulled her cart into Watson’s lane on a recent day and unloaded orange juice, sliced cheese and turkey, and odds and ends.
“Hey, how are you, Karen?” Watson asked. “You’re getting some more Berger Cookies?”
“We have friends coming,” Curlett said, “so I have to show them all about Baltimore.”
The order came to $74.66. Curlett said she avoids self-checkout machines; she appreciates the chance to be checked out by a person, like Watson, who knows her.
“I walk in the door and get a wave. He’s known me and my entire family. It’s a very personal experience,” she said.
“If there’s several choices, I always come to Lester’s line. He’s fast, quick as can be and he packs everything well.”
In the express lane, Steve Finney, 63, stands on a padded mat that helps the soreness in his knees after a long day of checking people out. Working at Graul’s is an after-retirement job for Finney, who had a career at Toys “R” Us and the Baltimore Department of Recreation and Parks.
A cashier sets the tone for an entire store, he said.
“If I am not good, your impression is not good,” Finney said. “If tomorrow you put automatic cashier stations, you take away all of the joy of shopping. That will be sad. Face it, they’re going to do it everywhere they can get away with it. But customer service is such a great part of your community.”
Dennis Graul, a fourth-generation owner of the business, said the market decided against adding self-checkouts. The store relies on a staff larger than many other grocers do because so much of what it sells is made on site, he said.
“Our associates need to provide service to our customers in all our fresh departments,” Graul said. “We feel like the checkout experience is part of our service experience, and we don’t want to lose the personal touch.”
Continuing pressure on stores like Graul’s to compete, especially with the recently approved increase in the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, could result in the loss of jobs and more automation, he said.
Some stores like Greetings & Readings in Hunt Valley, which closed in January, eliminating 80 jobs, haven’t been able to manage competitive pressures ranging from online rivals to rising minimum wages.
Judy Boksz spent 18 years working the register at the book and gift shop, changing between different pairs of shoes and going barefoot to relieve her achy feet from the 50 hours or so hours a week she spent standing.
After raising her four children, Boksz, 57, started at the store as a cashier, rising to general manager and moving between the sales floor and register each day. She loved working for the family-owned retailer. The best part, she said, was building strong relationships with regulars.
Like a bartender in a neighborhood pub, Boksz said, customers would share their life stories across the counter with the Greetings & Readings cashiers. They would start by talking about the gift they picked out, who it was for, what occasion. The next time, they’d share more, eventually talking about the milestones in their life, such as the births or deaths in their family, she said.
Talking to a cashier and exchanging a smile or a “have a good day” is a connection point, Boksz said, a fundamental part of the human experience.
“We need people to talk to,” Boksz said. “It is something that maybe some people don’t realize they need. You don’t know you need it until you don’t have it anymore.”
People might not realize how widely the loss of cashiers will be felt, given how many families depend on the job, Brookings’ Muro said. He compared it to the loss of manufacturing jobs, which have fallen to under 13 million from over 19 million a generation ago.
Experts say deliberate steps need to be taken to protect workers with the fewest options — the lowest paid and least skilled.
Baltimore has felt the pain of automation throughout its economic history, said Jason Perkins-Cohen, who runs the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development. Training programs can offer displaced workers new skills, he said, and it’s critical to guide students in high school toward careers that are not likely to be automated and will allow them to support a family, such as emergency medical technician or electrician.
“Automation without strategic intervention will increase the skills gap, and therefore the wage gap, and therefore increase economic inequality,” Alabama A&M’s Broady said.
But artificial intelligence and robots won’t result in some economic apocalypse like in the movies. In real life, Broady said, when one job gets phased out because of technology, another replaces it. Even as cashier jobs erode, e-commerce added some 355,000 jobs to the U.S. workforce in the last decade, she said.
Such jobs couldn’t be more different from the ones at places like Graul’s.
Among the 5,000 workers Amazon has hired in the past few years in its Maryland distribution centers are people like Samaira Johnson, 25. She is a “robotics technician” at the online retail giant’s Southeast Baltimore warehouse.
She tends the warehouse floor, where ankle-high orange robots scurry about, moving tall yellow racks of goods to be shipped. The robots zoom back and forth, following coding imprinted on the floor. Johnson wears a vest that emits a radio frequency signal to slow the robots to a crawl when she’s nearby, tending to them.
Johnson worked as an office clerk after high school but found answering phones and sitting behind a desk monotonous. The technology drew her to the Amazon job, she said, but her friends and family don’t understand what she does at work.