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People are worried Amazon will replace Whole Foods workers with robots

Find out how this changes your shopping experience. (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

Whole Foods is known for its human touch: smiling cashiers, bakers offering free samples, baristas pouring kombucha on tap. Amazon is known for replacing stores with Web pages and workers with algorithms.

On Friday, the companies got engaged: Amazon announced plans to purchase the upscale grocery chain in a deal valued at $13.7 billion.

Now, at a time when retail jobs are already in free fall, worker advocates worry that many of Whole Foods' 90,000 employees may be next.

Amazon opened a grocery store last year in Seattle that allows customers to buy food without talking to anyone. The surveillance-heavy building’s sensors can detect someone leaving with, say, a carton of milk and bill their Amazon account.

Whether Amazon intends to replicate or even approximate that model at Whole Foods is unclear. A representative for Amazon — whose founder and owner, Jeffrey P. Bezos, also owns The Washington Post — said it had no plans for automation. And even if the company sheds in-store employees, a restructuring could involve new hiring elsewhere.

A representative for Whole Foods said no layoffs would come as a result of the merger but did not comment on future employment plans. (A store manager told a Post reporter she could not interview employees at a D.C. locaion.)

Unlike employees at other large grocery chains, Whole Foods workers are not unionized — chief executive John Mackey has said the company is not “anti-union” but “beyond unions” — and the union representing grocery workers said the merger puts those employees at risk.

“Amazon’s brutal vision for retail is one where automation replaces good jobs,” Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said in a statement Friday. “Sadly, the hard-working men and women who work at Whole Foods now face an uncertain future.”

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Whole Foods has endured a rough couple of years, dismissing about 1,500 workers in 2015 after posting a stretch of dismal earnings. 

Still, the company is the 30th largest retailer in the United States, with 431 stores nationwide. Whole Foods is known for paying better-than-average wages and extending generous benefits packages to its employees. Workers receive 20 percent off groceries at the store and, after 800 service hours, full-timers become eligible to pay insurance premiums between $0 and $20 per paycheck, depending on their years with the company, per the Whole Foods website.

Elise Gould, a labor economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., said cashier jobs represent an important part of the economy. They’re spread out across the country and employ workers of diverse backgrounds and ages.

“These are jobs that can help support a family,” Gould said.

The country’s retail jobs, though, have seen a recent slowdown in growth. From now through 2024, employment of cashiers is expected to grow 2 percent while the average for all occupations is projected to jump 7 percent.

The number of cashier jobs in 2015, meanwhile, was the same as the number in 2005, though U.S. employment overall had increased by 7.6 million over that period, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Advances in technology, such as self-service checkout stands in retail stores and increasing online sales, will continue to limit the need for cashiers,” the BLS notes on its website.

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A 2013 study from Oxford University predicted that 47 percent of jobs in the United States could be performed by machines over the next two decades, and cashier roles carry an especially heightened risk. That’s because the work involves a heavy pattern, which computers can pick up easily, and is already being automated at stores across the country, such as CVS. A recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that, even in the age of automation, employers desire workers who can connect well with other people.

Outside a Whole Foods in the nation’s capital Friday, John Casey, a 52-year-old real estate developer, explained why he visits the store nearly every other day. “I don’t shop online,” he said, sitting before a platter of rotisserie chicken. “I like to come in and see people. The cashiers know me as a regular.”

Rebeka Ryvola, a 30-year-old World Bank employee, echoed his sentiment over a plate of vegan salad. “I just love interacting with people,” she said. “I get connections with people here, and I hope that doesn’t change.”

Ryvola said that at the CVS next door, however, the automated kiosks tend to save her time in line.