Choppies Embraces Idea Of Contact-Less Stores Idea

Unions are perturbed that over 7 000 jobs could be on the line as Choppies installs technology that may, right away, put paid to the need for cashiers at a time when many of them are on half salaries across the country. LAONE MOLELO reports

Retail giant Choppies is in the process of installing technologically advanced cameras in some of their stores, causing labour anxiety because this could spell doom for over 7 000 jobs, The Botswana Gazette has established.
The move is meant to reduce person-to-person physical contact as COVID infections worsen nationwide. Choppies chief executive Ramachandran Ottaphatu, better known as Ram, says businesses need to adapt to the new normal by instituting new changes. Ram could not rule out the possibility of having contact-less stores decked out with cameras and depth-sensors to register what people place in their bags to purchase, simultaneously saving operational costs and reducing the spread of COVID-19.

In fact, Choppies has already started installing the cameras in some of their stores but the old cameras which they currently have in stores will take time to replace, Ram said. “The idea of having a contact-less stores can work but it will take time because these contact-less stores have just been opened in developed countries,” he told The Gazette. “Most definitely this could help.”

In his view, lack of political will to move in the direction of the developed world has hindered business growth, giving the example of how Botswana uses the least solar energy when the country has an abundance of sunlight. “Technology is a very dynamic thing,” Ram noted. “As we progress every day, more technology will be there.”
He disclosed that Choppies spends over P20 million a month on salaries alone in a cost that can be obviated by use of technology. “We have to be prepared for any eventuality because these are challenging times and all businesses want to survive,” he said. “It is inevitable that some measures will be adopted.”

Choppies has 92 stores across Botswana with over 7 000 employees between them who will be greatly impacted by installation of the cameras. The Admin Secretary of the Botswana Commerce and Allied Workers Union (BOCAWU), Biki Kalake, is keenly aware of how the 4th Industrial Revolution is a threat to cashiers, shelf packers and dispatch workers at the giant retailer. “If there are automated till points, there will be no need to employ people in those roles,” Kalake observed. “We have been told about such job losses occurring in developed countries.”

Similar fears have been expressed at the Botswana Commercial and General Workers Union whose Organising Secretary, Kgopolo Tshikare, says although they are not against use of technology, they are worried about retrenchments. “It seems employers want to use COVID-19 as an excuse to trample upon the rights of employees because they don’t take any suggestions from us regarding how to proceed,” Tshikare told The Botswana Gazette.

He added that this is particularly painful in that this is coming at a time when most cashiers are on half salaries in spite of the retail giant having never closed for business. “We have reports on our desks that some employers have resorted to forcibly placing staff on leave in order not to pay them for the days they are away and these employees not being paid if they contract COVID-19,” he said.

Tshikare noted that this has led to some employees not declaring their COVID status, especially that the government is not doing anything to protect them.

For his part, Economist at First National Bank Botswana, Gomolemo Basele, says contact-less stores could provide an avenue for businesses to cut down costs but the cost of procuring and installing self-service checkout points will be high in the short term. “Beyond reducing staff costs for businesses, self-checkout points can also improve efficiency and speed because they take up less space than traditional cashier stalls,” Basele said.

However, they are not without their risks because the potential for theft is increased when purchases are not monitored by cashiers physically while customers who prefer the traditional checkout are likely to switch to stores where these are still available, he pointed out.