Raúl Franco Hernández, 80, has been working for six years as a volunteer grocery packer at a Walmart Express supermarket in Mexico City. Every day, over a four-hour shift, he bags groceries for tips, working alongside the cashier — usually a young clerk who scans the groceries and slides them to Franco Hernández to pack while the customer pays. He told Rest of World that before the pandemic, he and about 20 other packers at the store earned up to 450 Mexican pesos (about $25) a day. But when the store fully reopened in late 2021, three self-checkout cashiers had been installed in place of two human cashier stations. It now has only eight grocery packers, and Franco Hernández said his daily income has dropped to about 200–250 pesos (between $11 and $14). 

Thousands of retirees like Franco Hernández pack groceries at supermarkets across Mexico. The volunteer baggers are not formally employed by these companies; rather, they’re part of a government effort that puts retired citizens in touch with supermarkets and other establishments to “generate an income.” Alina Bassegoda Treviño, founder of Mente en Forma, a nonprofit focused on elderly people in Mexico City, told Rest of World many retirees sign up as a way to complement their state-funded pensions and benefits. Others do it for the company or because it’s an opportunity to feel valued in society. 

Walmart was the first supermarket to install a self-checkout system in its Mexican stores, starting with a pilot in 2018. Other companies gradually followed suit. But it was the Covid-19 restrictions and the parallel growth of home delivery platforms that supercharged the rollout of self-checkout stations. Today, they can be found in midsize and large supermarkets nationwide. 

The arrival of self-checkout cashiers and the growth of online sales have translated into fewer people in the stores, grocery packers told Rest of World. They said the amount they received in tips has halved since they returned to work after the lockdowns ended. This has, in part, been due to the rise of inflation, alongside home and last-mile delivery — although these services are more commonly used by the richer echelons of Mexican society, according to the Mexican Association of Online Sales. Self-checkout stalls, though, have been rolled out in most of the country’s largest cities, and in every sort of supermarket — from the high-end La Comer to middle-class Walmart to the working-class Soriana stores. 

Packers worry that changes driven by tech companies will end up killing off their work as volunteers. When customers place orders from supermarkets through an app, delivery workers shop for, and bag, the groceries themselves, excluding the store’s packers from the process. The app workers, who earn low wages themselves, also cannot afford to tip the volunteer baggers like other customers might do. But nothing poses more of a threat than self-checkouts. Joaquín Martínez, a 68-year-old packer who’s been working at another Walmart in Mexico City for four years, told Rest of World 20 of his fellow packers lost their positions soon after 20 self-checkout stalls were installed last year. 

“It’s hard to find a place to work at my age.”

The addition of tech elements to grocery shopping in Mexico — be it self-checkouts, online shopping, or last-mile delivery services — was underway before the pandemic, but increased dramatically afterwards. Walmart, the country’s third-largest company by net sales and the biggest retailer nationwide with over 2,500 stores, had a 36% increase in online sales in 2021 — the same year self-checkout stalls were rolled out en masse across 38 stores across Mexico. A year later, self-checkouts had been installed in over 280 Walmart stores, accounting for 40% of all transactions. 

La Comer declined to share any information related to the self-checkout cashiers, citing it as confidential, and Soriana said about 5% of its stores nationwide have installed these types of stalls.

Gloria Cueva Rodríguez, a 71-year-old grocery packer working at a Mexico City Soriana, told Rest of World she sometimes earned about 250 pesos (about $14) for every four-hour shift. Now, after the store installed self-checkout cashiers, she gets roughly 200 pesos per shift. “Some customers are very generous and the store management is very kind to us, but there’s not much else they can do [to help us earn more] since we’re volunteering,” she said. 

280 The number of Walmart stores in Mexico with self-checkout stalls in 2022.

If online shopping and self-checkout cashiers end up terminating the volunteer bagging program, that might actually be beneficial for retirees, Bassegoda Treviño said. “I think we misemploy the elderly by making them pack groceries. It’s actually good that there are machines that are taking that task away from them because it will give them the chance to do much more valuable things in society — actual jobs that suit them if they wish to keep working. Maybe they can train younger workers in the jobs they performed for decades,” she said.

The elderly volunteers don’t seem to share this opinion. Given their age, many of them said they felt like this was the only work open to them, making it a highly popular job in their age group. Franco Hernández said there’s even a waiting list for volunteer baggers now. “Some of my fellow [would-be] packers have missed their chance because the store calls you once and if you don’t pick up, they call the next in line,” he said. 

The Walmart in the Mexico City neighborhood of Tepeyac, currently the company’s largest store in the country, has 40 checkout lines, half of which are self-checkouts. On a quiet Sunday morning, a long line of customers waited to gain access to one of the 10 open self-checkout stalls. Only three human-run cashiers were operating. Sitting on a small bench, a line of five grocery baggers chatted, waiting for more customers to arrive. “I’m very grateful that the store is giving me the chance to earn some money,” Martínez, the 68-year old volunteer, told Rest of World. “It’s hard to find a place to work at my age.”