Whole Foods CEO John Mackey has argued that when Amazon swoops in and sprinkles its e-commerce magic dust, the grocery chain will “evolve in leaps and bounds.” This is widely understood to be code, in part, for “announce job cuts,” and today Bloomberg makes a prediction about the first employees on the chopping block: Amazon has spent a lot of time “analyzing Whole Foods’ distribution technology” as a way of reducing costs, an insider says. “That suggests the jobs that could be affected the earliest would be in the warehouses,” analysts tell Bloomberg. “Cashiers will be safe — for now.”
Amazon’s plan for disrupting the grocery industry is built around the idea of leveraging its vastly superior distribution model to clobber the competition. Once the buyout goes through, the company will acquire 11 Whole Foods distribution centers nationwide — areas that all of the grocer’s perishables pass through and that are ripe for automation. Even the commissaries at these facilities where ready-made foods get prepped are areas where Amazon could deploy robots, in the same way Silicon Valley has already started automating burger-flipping and pizza delivery. Bloomberg notes that Amazon’s network of warehouses currently contains “thousands of robots,” and that these centers are growing “more specialized” every day.
These experts add that they doubt robots will usurp Whole Foods jobs in stores right away, but, again, it’s really just a matter of when, not if: First, Amazon needs to train robots to be delicate, so they don’t manhandle a container of strawberries like it’s a durable hardback novel or tube of Aquafresh. The first bots to infiltrate stores will start innocently enough — they’ll probably do little more than glide up and down the aisles, checking shelves for low inventory, according to one industry expert. “These robots can operate alongside people inside a store,” he says, but first Amazon will want to “make absolutely sure they are safe.”