Nordstrom Rack’s Roving Cashiers Are Exactly What We Want

It's not just tech that's killing jobs — it's you and I.

Photo by mphillips007/iStock

C’mon, admit it: You hate people like I do, right? OK, maybe not hate hate — but the fewer of them around, the better. Well, here’s a secret the next time you go shopping.

At the Nordstrom Rack on Chestnut Street, you don’t have to wait in line with other annoying people to purchase an item any longer. You can if you want. But instead, just find a store employee on the floor and ask to checkout. Chances are that the floor employee will be able to ring up your purchases and take your credit card with a smartphone that they’re now carrying around. They’ve only been doing this for about a month. Unfortunately for the employees at Nordstrom, this will ultimately result in fewer cashier jobs. That’s bad for them. But it’s reality. And it’s our fault.

Look, retail is in the dumps. Sales are down. Profits are declining. According to a recent report in Bloomberg, store closings are on a pace so far this year to exceed the closings during the last Great Recession of 2009. The “bubble has now burst,” Urban Outfitters chief executive Richard Hayne told analysts in the article. “We are seeing the results: doors shuttering and rents retreating. This trend will continue for the foreseeable future and may even accelerate.” Sears, Radio Shack, Macy’s, Payless, HHGregg — they’re all retracting. There’s been an overexpansion of retail in the past two decades, and now, thanks to Amazon, StitchFix, Zappos, JustFab and other online marketplaces, shoppers like us just aren’t going to the mall like they did before. Why should we when we can get what we want online and not have to deal with other people?

But the internet is only half the problem for employees who want to work in retail. The other job-killer is technology. Just take a walk around town: Nordstrom isn’t the only retailer putting mobile point-of-sale apps in the hands of workers on the floor and eliminating cashiers. Apple’s been doing it for years. Urban Outfitters plans to get rid of cash registers in lieu of handheld tablets. Wawa, Target, CVS, Whole Foods, and countless other stores now have self-service kiosks for ordering and/or checkout. Wendy’s is enabling customers to order burgers themselves on thousands of kiosks around the country. Fully automated and employee-less Amazon Go grocery stores are being planned nationwide. Systems like Square, LevelUp, and ShopKeep are enabling small merchants to do what the big retailers are doing: eliminate people through self-service and mobile point of sales.

You feel bad for these employees. But this isn’t technology’s fault. It’s our fault.  You and I caused this.

I like not standing in line to buy an overpriced pair of shorts. I like creating my own hoagie. I like ordering my meal at Uno’s or at a restaurant in Terminal F without making small talk with the waiter. I like paying for my toothpaste without any human interaction. I don’t even have to take off my earbuds to do all of this. Dealing with machines is way easier than talking to people. And it’s much, much less annoying. Oh, and don’t accuse me of sounding so harsh. You know you love it too.

Technology is quickly replacing people, and for me it can’t happen quickly enough. Soon, apps using artificial intelligence will be able to figure out and repair problems without human intervention. The use of software bots, which are already responding to online customer service requests in lieu of customer service agents, will continue to grow. Retailers are already eliminating customer-facing jobs not because they want to, but because they have to if they want to stay in business. Their customers – that’s you and me – are demanding it.

Like the horse-and-buggy driver, the blacksmith, the telephone-switchboard operator, the elevator attendant, the gas-station worker, and so many other professions, the number of retail employees will soon — almost — disappear. And, as before, the economy will adjust. Just a decade or two ago there were no Uber drivers, Airbnb hosts, drone operators, Grubhub deliverers, social media experts, online degrees, work-from-home customer-service agents, or virtual assistants. So don’t fret — there will be new jobs. Or maybe one day the world will be run by robots, and humans can kick back and watch Netflix all day, without having to interact with each other. I can’t wait for that day to come.

Gene Marks, CPA, runs a ten-person technology consulting firm in Bala Cynwyd. He writes daily for the Washington Post and weekly for Forbes, Inc. Magazine, Entrepreneur Magazine, and the Huffington Post.