The confluence of birthrate and technology

Checkout as you shop -- convenience, or job killer?IA teenage girl pulls out her smartphone, and flicks her finger a few times at the screen. A message flashes in a thought bubble to let her know her crescent and chai tea have been paid.

Later, sitting drinking the tea she flicks the screen a few more times and orders a football jersey in her favorite team’s colors.

Somewhere, a robot whirs to life and follows a track to bin B7825JF. A mechanical claw reaches to the highest level and retrieves a plastic bag containing the desired jersey. The robot – actually a motorized bin, returns to the packing station. vinyl envelopes filled with air are placed in a box to take up the space not occupied by the jersey. the flaps are folded down as the box passes through another machine, and packing tape and a shipping label are applied.

The young woman’s smartphone chimes to let her know her order is out for delivery. Later, having scanned a barcode to learn her address, and followed a computer-directed path from the dispatch center in her town, a drone drops her package at her door. Her phone chimes a message telling her the drone has delivered her order.

No human has touched the NFL fan’s jersey, from the machines that manufactured the garment to the one that delivered the purchase to her doorstep. No cash changed hands.

That story is fiction. This one is not.

At the local supermarket, a rack of handheld product scanners greets shoppers. You grab a scanner, scan your store courtesy card — the one that records how much money you spend so it can give you, if you spend enough, a discount on your next gasoline purchase.

Then you walk through the store, picking up what you want to buy as you walk up and down the aisles, scanning each item before dropping it in your cart.

When you have chosen all you wish to purchase, you head for a checkout line. Your purchase already is tallied. All you need do to pay is slip a piece of plastic in a slot.

The process is not actually any more convenient than it has been – for the customer. After all, as you move your groceries from the cart to the bags, how difficult is it to slide them past the table scanner to total up your purchases. But soon the cashier and table scanner will disappear.

Here is the third story. A Walmart subsidiary is testing a system in New York that brings the first scene closer to reality. Customers can sit at a computer at home, wander the store via virtual reality choosing products and placing them in a virtual cart. When the order is complete, the bill is totaled and the customer’s bank account debited. Gone will be the customer service folks to tell us were to find the lemon juice; a computer will find the product and deliver it to our home.

If we don’t like the product, it will be picked up at our door for return.

Nearly 20 years ago, I discovered self-checkouts, at a Harris-Teeter store in North Carolina. Then they showed up here in K-Mart, then Walmart. Add the new program in Giant, which saves little time for the consumer, but is poised to eliminate more cashiers.

Autonomous trucks and robot home delivery will carry goods from farm to table. As we rapidly approach the confluence of birthrate and technology, all that leisure time we once were promised seems almost within our grasp.

I just wonder how we consumers will pay for it.

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