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A better customer experience and better sales could even increase employment.

June 26, 2017

“You’ve been replaced by a machine.” It’s the line every worker fears – and in some industries, like manufacturing, rightfully so. But though fast food chains like McDonald’s continue to install ordering kiosks in their restaurants – gunning for 2,500 locations by year’s end and 14,000 by 2020 – current evidence seems to show that these touchscreen cashiers may not be as likely to take our jobs as it may seem.

McDonald’s 2,500 location kiosk target, a number which was making the rounds on finance websites last week, led to reports like CNBC’s statement, “In with the future, and out with cashiers.” But though the chain’s desire to install more kiosks may be accurate, the idea that these machines will replace humans was almost immediately refuted by McDonald’s itself. "Our CEO, Steve Easterbrook, has said on many occasions that self-order kiosks in McDonald's restaurants are not a labor replacement,” a company spokesman fired back in an update published by CNBC. “They provide an opportunity to transition back-of-the-house positions to more customer service roles such as concierges and table service where they are able to truly engage with guests and enhance the dining experience.”

Sure, that sounds all warm and fuzzy – a fresh-faced youngster now greeting you at the door instead of behind the counter – but isn’t it just McDonald’s denying the inevitable: that machines will take cashier jobs? Actually, evidence shows that kiosks might not be the job killers they seem.

As Business Insider reports, kiosks have actually been a boon for the locations that install them – a 5 to 6 percent increase in sales the first year after a remodel and a 2 percent increase in year two. More sales could certainly necessitate maintaining or even increasing staff.  Meanwhile, Nation’s Restaurant News’ Jonathan Maze points out that kiosks don’t even affect the over two-thirds of McDonald’s business that comes from drive-thru ordering. Additionally, Maze points to other benefits of kiosks besides simply reducing labor costs:  The machines give customers more time, control and accuracy with their orders. Customers often order more, more orders can come in at once during busy times, and greater accuracy increases customer satisfaction. The moral: Kiosks can help pay for themselves even without replacing the cost of a person.

Overall, is it possible that the out-of-the-gate hot take that kiosks will replace cashiers is accurate? Maybe. Kiosks will be handling something a human handled before. But does evidence exist that kiosks are guaranteed job killers? Not necessarily. For now, man and machine will have to try to get along.