On Tuesday Amazon opened their third Amazon Go, the cashier-less grocery store, in Seattle. It is the second grocery Amazon has quiety opened in the past week, as GeekWire points out, and, considering that Amazon is the proud owner of Whole Foods Market, it makes you wonder: How long until this model replaces the cashiers at Whole Foods as well?
I worked a Whole Foods for a while in my 20s. To be frank, I fucking hated it. At orientation, when the team leader asked if we had any questions, I raised my hand and asked if there was any such thing as conscious consumerism under capitalism. He didn't know what the hell I was talking about and I continued to be a little shit for the duration of my time there, which consisted of smoking weed on my lunch breaks; threading my earbuds up the back of my hoodie so I could listen to podcasts on the job; and spending more time wandering around the store eating samples than actually doing any work. When I eventually quit (by leaving my boss a voicemail in the middle of the night), I missed the discount (which, at the time, was 30 percent) as well as my coworkers, but not much else. The job was a gig for me, not a career, and I quickly got another gig to replace that one.
There were, of course, plenty of people like me working at Whole Foods at the time: college students and townies who worked there for the check but ultimately had opportunities to leave. But, for every one of us, there were people for whom this wasn't just a gig; it was a career. One of my more shameful memories of my 20s (and there are a lot) was something I said one day while working with my favorite cashier, Debra. She was older than me, black, married with kids, and was very, very into Jesus Christ. We were, in many ways, opposites, but we got along well, and when she told me I was going to Hell, I'd tell her there was no such thing, and we'd both laugh and shake our heads about how very wrong the other person could be.
And then, one day, right before I quit, I told her I was thinking about applying to grad school so that I could, in my own words, "get a real job." She looked me directly in the eye and said, "This is a real job."
I felt awful. She was right. It was a real job and I was too blinded by my class and race privilege to see it. And as far as jobs go, it was an okay one. At the time, I started out at $9 an hour, which, in the mid 2000s in a southern state, was almost $2 more than minimum wage and actually enough to pay my bills. I had health insurance, sick days, and paid time off. Had I stayed, I could have worked my way up the chain, as plenty of my coworkers did. I have friends who, over 10 years later, still work at Whole Foods and are able to make a decent middle class living, at least in the less expensive cities and states. It's not the best job—that job would belong to Jeff Bezos, who made $2.8 billion the day his company announced the first Amazon Go, or about 13 times the combined daily income of all the cashiers in the U.S.—but it's not the worst job either. For plenty of people, it's a career.
But for how long? Whole Foods has an estimated 90,000 employees. When Amazon bought Whole Foods in 2017, the company said they had no plans for layoffs. Less than a year later, they laid off hundreds of marketing staff around the U.S.. Does this mean the company will soon replace their cashiers with robots? Not necessarily, but Amazon is a company built on efficiency, and with the cashier-less, grab-and-go grocery, Jeff Bezos had created the model of grocery store efficiency. After all, what is less efficient than human beings? Robots don't make small talk. They definitely don't need health insurance or paid time off. They don't even need to get paid. But humans do, and if/when the day comes when Whole Foods is run by robots and all of those cashiers find themselves out of a paycheck, I, for one, will not be the least bit surprised. I will, however, be chagrined for my old coworker Debra and everyone left. Whole Foods ultimately wasn't the job for me, but it was a company built on people, and they deserve not to be replaced by bots.