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Protests erupt after French supermarket uses automation to evade labour laws

Pascal Guyot, AFP | A picture taken on May 24, 2019, in Montpellier, southern France, shows a Geant Casino supermarket logo.

A French hypermarket used self-service checkout stations to circumvent the country’s strict limits on working on Sundays, and many people were none too happy.

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For the first time in French history, a hypermarket was open on a Sunday afternoon. French labor law prohibits the employees of hypermarkets and large supermarkets from working after 1pm on Sundays. But last Sunday, the Géant Casino de la Roseraie in Angers, in northwestern France, was open to customers until 9pm. So how did they do it? Self-checkout stations and security guards employed by an external company.

The workaround at the 5,000-square-metre store didn’t technically break any laws, but it did vex local officials. “I find this manner of circumventing the law fairly dishonest,” said Karine Engel, deputy mayor overseeing commerce in Angers. But because no laws were broken, there is nothing the municipality can do to prevent the extension of Sunday hours, either.

Trade unions and protestors were also displeased. Nearly 200 protesters, including some Yellow Vest demonstrators, disrupted business by tipping over shopping carts in the store and blocking the entrances.

While Sunday’s opening was the first of its kind for a hypermarket, Casino has been using the automated checkout system to keep smaller stores open on Sundays for some time. Three of its stores one in Lyon, one in Marseille and one in Montpellier are open 24/7. Other supermarket chains in France have also been experimenting with self-checkout and extended Sunday hours.

Officials and unions acknowledge that the technology allows employees to have Sundays off, but union officials worry that over time the automated systems will lead to layoffs.

Protesters at the Géant Casino in Angers

And the additional hours simply aren’t necessary, they argue. “People don’t need an extra half day of shopping," Jean Pastor, a local union representative told AFP. “There are already sufficient opening hours as it is.”

Part of what worries unions is that the Angers hypermarket is not in a large city, said Olivier Dauvers, a retail sector specialist. “We’ve gone from the small shop in Paris where there is objectively a flow of clients day and night [...] to a hypermarket in a seemingly 'ordinary-looking' town where people would think they could wait until Monday morning to do their shopping,” he said.

“This is on a different scale, we've taken a symbolic step and that’s what shocks unions and staff. If Casino manages to do this in Angers in a hypermarket, we’re opening the door to something that could, if the consumer wants, become fairly widespread.”

A significant number of supermarkets in France already have automated checkout points in addition to cashiers. And while reducing employee costs is certainly a motivating factor, it is not the only benefit to companies. Automated checkout allows stores to increase capacity as well, Dauvers explained.

“In the past supermarkets did this by opening bigger and bigger stores," he says, "but you can scarcely open more in France because there are already so many. So what do we do? We extend opening hours."

The hyperstore is expected to be open late again this Sunday, but Engel isn’t convinced the experiment will be successful in the long run. “It’s bad publicity for the company,” she said.

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