I Have Seen the Future of Retail…

… and it looks like this:

This is the main checkout area at the Walgreens at the corner of North Avenue and Wells St. in Chicago. As you can see, it has no human cashiers at all; just a guy (in the striped sweater) roving and troubleshooting if customers have problems during the checkout process.

I’m in Chicago at my Mom’s place for Christmas, and over dinner last night we were talking about Race Against the Machine and the steady pace of automation (because what else do I talk about these days?). She and her husband Gene told me that the Walgreens in their neighborhood didn’t have any human cashiers any more.

I told them they must be mistaken. I’ve seen plenty of self-checkout stations, but they’ve always been accompanied by at least one human cashier to accommodate customers who for whatever reason — unfamiliarity, techno-fear, the desire to chat, whatever — don’t want to deal with a machine. I assumed the same would be true at this Walgreens. Mom and Gene were adamant that it was 100% self-checkout, so we got bundled up and walked over to get the straight dope.

They were right and I was wrong. There are six NCR self-checkout kiosks at the entrance / exit, and no cashiers at all there. There are human cashiers at the photo lab and the pharmacy and customers can take their purchases to these two locations if they want, but at the main checkout area you can’t get rung up by a person any more.

The NCR machines accept cash and credit / debit cards, and Mom and Gene told me that they work pretty well most of the time. A friendly and helpful Walgreens manager named Tony, who came over when he saw me taking pictures, agreed. He said that his store had been cashier-free for a couple years, and was one of only three in the country to have taken the leap to 100% self-checkout. The machines were easy enough to use and pretty reliable, he said, and didn’t change the amount of shoplifting one way or the other because “if people are going to steal, they’re going to steal.”

The store is in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood, which is a diverse place. It’s gentrifying quickly now, but was home to the infamous Cabrini-Green project. So the Walgreens at North and Wells gets customers of every age and every level of education and affluence. And self-checkout can evidently handle all of them.

A March 2011 article in the Los Angeles Times by Alena Semuels highlighted that the retail industry has been automating rapidly.

In an industry that employs nearly 1 in 10 Americans and has long been a reliable job generator, companies increasingly are looking to peddle more products with fewer employees. … Virtual assistants are taking the place of customer service representatives. Kiosks and self-service machines are reducing the need for checkout clerks.

Last night I saw first-hand evidence of how advanced this trend is. As we become more comfortable interacting with technology, as credit and debit cards proliferate, as inventory management systems improve, and as everything gets a bar code, how long will it be until a human cashier is a curiosity?

I say less than a decade. Do you agree?