Let’s state the obvious first: working retail sucks. I know, I did it when I was younger. Being a cashier is even worse. You’re on you feet all day, and you meet so many different people with one thing in common – none of them want to be there. But there you are, trying to maintain a smile, attempting to be friendly with someone who is probably a serial killer on his day off. What can make this little slice of heaven even worse? Having you boss constantly watch you. Every single minute. And that is coming soon to a Walmart near you.
You see, Walmart just patented an audio surveillance system, appropriately called “Listening to the Front End”. In the patent, the abstract describes this as:
“In some embodiments, apparatuses, and methods are provided herein pertaining to sound analysis in a shopping facility. In some embodiments, a system comprises one or more sound sensors distributed throughout at least a portion of a shopping facility and configured to receive at least sounds resulting from activity in the shopping facility and a control circuit, the control circuit configured to receive, from at least one of the one or more sound sensors, audio data, receive an indication of an employee, correlate the audio data and in the indication of the employee, and determine, based at least in part on the audio data and the indication of the employee, a performance metric for the employee. ” (United States of America Patent No. 10,020,004 B2, 2018).
You see, management needs performance metrics. The system is composed of several sensors that can collect audio data, including beeps and the rustling of bags. Any data gathered could be used to assess employee performance — for example, the sounds items make when they’re placed inside a bag can tell the company how efficient someone is at bagging purchases. Customers’ voices can also indicate how long a line is and how quickly a cashier can get through all of them.
As BuzzFeed News points out, though, the most invasive feature is the system’s ability to understand conversations and use them to judge an employee’s performance: “If however the performance metric is based on the content of the conversation (e.g., was a specific greeting used or script followed), the system can process the audio detected by the sound sensors 102 (e.g., using speech recognition) to determine the performance metric.” (O’Donovan, 2018). You friendly and helpful with your customers? You could find yourself in trouble.
Granted, this raises questions of privacy, and how much is expected and where. You want to make sure that customers are being checked out by shiny, happy people, but one point that Walmart usually overlooks is when it is after church on Sunday and you have 24 checkout lines, but only three of them are open, do not expect the cashier to be happy, nor the customers who have been waiting in line for 20 minutes. Plus you do have the idea of working in a surveillance state, which never works out well – just ask someone who was living in East Germany in the 1980’s. Suddenly the idea of letting customer bag it themselves make more sense.
Jones, N. A., Vasgaard, A. J., Taylor, R. J., & Jones, M. A. (2018). United States of America Patent No. 10,020,004 B2.
O’Donovan, C. (2018, July 11). Walmart’s Newly Patented Technology For Eavesdropping On Workers Presents Privacy Concerns. Retrieved from BuzzFeed.com: https://www.buzzfeed.com/carolineodonovan/walmart-just-patented-audio-surveillance-technology-for?utm_term=.hgBrjVg8r#.ktLQEv0wQ