ANGERS, France — On a Sunday afternoon, customers at a Géant Casino supermarket browsed the aisles and lined up to buy meat, fish and other groceries. It was a typical shopping experience except for one thing: All the cashiers had gone home. Customers scanned items at automated checkout stations as security guards hovered nearby.
That the store was even open was unusual. French labor rules prohibit most shops from employing workers past 1 p.m. on Sundays. But as e-commerce and online giants like Amazon usher in an era of round-the-clock spending, retailers are amping up the use of automated cashiers to help them compete.
The move has caused an outcry in France, where Sundays are traditionally a rest day for workers and families. While self-checkout machines are often used alongside cashiers, labor unions say that tilting toward fully cashierless operations threatens the French way of life by encouraging American-style consumerism and automation, putting thousands of jobs at risk.
“Sundays are sacred,” said Patrice Auvinet, the head of the General Confederation of Labor union in Angers, a midsize city in western France. “If they change that, it will change French society. And if automated cashiers become normalized, it will have a catastrophic impact on workers.”
Groupe Casino, the country’s biggest supermarket operator, began testing Sunday-afternoon openings in August using only automated machines at the warehouse-size supermarket in Angers. It has expanded the experiment to at least 20 other megastores around the country, igniting raucous protests.
This week, Casino further riled unions by becoming the first supermarket chain in France to keep most of its stores open, including the one in Angers, on Christmas Day using only self-checkout machines. Casino said in a statement that it planned to do the same on New Year’s Day, and that the move was an extension of how it was already operating on Sunday afternoons.
President Emmanuel Macron paved the way for Sunday openings in 2015 when he was France’s economy minister, loosening regulation of business hours around Paris and other touristic areas to stimulate the economy. Unions fought the measures, citing labor rights won over decades.
But retailers say the restrictions that apply outside city centers have become a bind as e-commerce disrupts the retail landscape. As brick-and-mortar outlets lose sales to online merchants, companies say they must either compete or perish.
“The world is changing, and we’re in a very competitive environment,” said Sébastien Corrado, the marketing director of Groupe Casino. “The internet doesn’t have frontiers, so we need to adapt to new modes of consumption that let us stay in the game and be winners.”
Ringing up more profit is especially important for Groupe Casino, which also operates supermarkets in South America and Asia. It is restructuring billions of euros of debt after its holding companies recently entered a form of bankruptcy protection.
At the Angers store, which employs 115 in a working-class neighborhood, Groupe Casino is having salaried employees clock out as usual at 12:30 p.m. on Sundays, then bringing in security guards, hired through another company, to keep the store open through evening.
Groupe Casino had been operating 130 smaller stores in Paris and other cities using self-checkout machines to let consumers shop until midnight or even around the clock.
But Groupe Casino’s huge supermarkets, like the one in Angers, employ thousands, often on urban outskirts with limited job opportunities. That first Sunday afternoon in August, 200 demonstrators converged on the Angers store, chanting angrily and accusing the company of taking a big step toward replacing employees.
Chaos mounted when the protesters were joined by local members of the Yellow Vest movement, which arose last year to protest stagnating wages and declining living standards. Denouncing what they said was an erosion of workers’ living standards, they charged through the store, dumping produce in the aisles and heckling customers who were using the automatic checkout machines.
“Today is just the beginning, but tomorrow, who’s to say this won’t stop?” said Xavier Roche, a maintenance worker for another big supermarket chain, Carrefour, who joined the protests.
He is worried that Carrefour, which uses self-checkout at its convenience stores to stay open Sundays, will do the same at its larger markets. “First it’s Sunday afternoons, then it will be 24 hours a day,” Mr. Roche said.
Cashierless supermarkets are gaining ground around the world. Reducing cash payments and checkout time have become major goals for retailers that want to make the buying experience faster and more attractive while cutting labor costs.
Amazon pushed the boundaries by opening Amazon Go in the United States, a minimart where customers can buy items without any human interaction. Tesco is testing purely cashierless stores in Britain. Stores in China are increasingly using so-called facial payments, which lets shoppers pay by looking into a camera, after they have linked a photo of their face to a bank account. The facial payment technology eliminates the need for a wallet or mobile app.
Groupe Casino has not gone that far. But it is getting closer. Last year, it opened a gastronomic store off the Champs-Élysées in Paris that enables shoppers to buy everything from flowers to foie gras by using an app to scan the products and pay. Interactive displays show data on a product’s nutrition, price and popularity. For shoppers who cannot find the cheese, a voice-activated information screen gives directions to the right aisle. There are about a dozen workers who help customers and stock shelves, but no actual cashiers.
Tech-savvy and time-pressed customers have flocked to such services. “We’re meeting the needs of our clients,” said Mr. Corrado, the marketing director. “If we don’t have to close, then everyone wins because people get convenience and our sales increase. That also benefits our employees.”
That is hardly believable to workers who fear that opening all night at small stores, let alone Sunday afternoons at the big supermarkets, is a slippery slope to full automation and lost jobs.
Saliha Guechaichia, 47, grew anxious when the Géant Casino opened that first Sunday afternoon without her and the other cashiers, many of them single mothers with children. She began working at Casino 30 years ago, earning a modest income that helps her and her family get by.
“There used to be 22 registers with cashiers — now there are just 13,” Mrs. Guechaichia, a union member, said as she sat at a cafe opposite the store with a group of upset workers. Eight cashierless checkout stations were recently installed, she said, and more are coming.
“We’re worried,” she added. “This is no test — the machines are here for good.”
Younger workers find it easier to adapt.
“Machines can’t completely replace us,” said Arthur Hornoy, 20, a university student who works part time as a cashier to help pay for his studies. “For instance, we’re trained to recognize when someone might be stealing. A machine can’t do that.”
The bigger problem, Mr. Hornoy said, is that he wants to work more on Sundays to increase his earnings but cannot do so because of the labor laws.
“This isn’t taking jobs away, because we can’t work anyway,” he said. “I think if the company could have us work, they would, because the lines at the automated registers in the afternoon are huge.”
Even before the cashiers clocked out, those assigned to help customers scan items were overwhelmed. Marvim Bolina Naubir, another university student, zipped around a bank of self-checkout stations as shoppers peppered him with questions on how to use them.
“We are two people working eight automatic registers, when there could be six more cashiers,” Mr. Naubir, 21, said. “Older workers are especially concerned that machines used Sunday afternoons could stretch to the entire week, and then they would lose their jobs.”
Around 15,000 cashier jobs — almost one-tenth of the total — have disappeared in the past decade in France. While that is nowhere near the hundreds of thousands that unions warned would be shed, job losses are expected to mount as automation increases, said Mathieu Hocquelet, a labor sociologist at the Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches sur les Qualifications.
“These are precarious jobs, so there will be mass unemployment,” he said.
At the cafe, Mrs. Guechaichia and the other workers watched from a distance as customers filtered into the store. While townspeople were sympathetic, the protests had not kept away all shoppers. Groupe Casino said around 1,000 consumers were going there Sunday afternoons, bringing in significant sales.
Mr. Roche, the Carrefour maintenance employee, said the longer opening hours were just the start of a Western-style culture of overconsumption coming to France.
“We are opening on holidays and staying open 24 hours for businesses to make more money,” he said. “But workers’ salaries aren’t increasing, and people don’t have more money to consume.”
Declining purchasing power has been a central theme of Yellow Vest protesters in France, where the median monthly take-home pay is about 1,700 euros (about $1,900), meaning that half of workers make less than that.
Mrs. Guechaichia said no cashiers had yet been laid off. But employees no longer working at a cash register were being retrained for other tasks, such as stocking shelves and greeting customers.
How long those jobs will be around, she said, is anyone’s guess.
“Even if we give them flexibility, they will always ask for more,” she said. “All of the social achievements we’ve worked for are collapsing like a house of cards.”
Mélissa Godin contributed reporting.