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02/28/2019 | Restoring a Fair Workweek

Technology and Disruption: Workers' Predictions on the Future of Retail

Retail is undergoing a period of significant disruption as technology transforms the sector. Though e-commerce is only 9% of all retail sales, this figure doubled in the last seven years and is steadily rising. Technology is changing the nature of retail, sparking a national debate on whether the sector will continue to add jobs or whether millions of jobs will be lost to automation.

    Industry analysts are still forecasting whether and how technology will replace entire jobs, like cashiers, or streamline tasks, like pill counting at pharmacies. Yet all agree that the future is unfolding right now in the service sector – and the jobs employing the nation’s largest service-sector workforce could be radically altered in the years to come. While many business executives, industry analysts, technologists, and journalists make predictions on the future of retail, very few forecasts have engaged frontline retail workers for their insights on the ground.

    Surveying 1,100 retail workers employed across major employers and within key retail economies, we launched the first national opinion polling of the retail workforce. The survey aimed to understand their views on the future of work. This report offers insights from retail workers on the technologies currently used in their stores.

    The stakes are high for America’s nearly 16 million retail workers. Technology is just one force transforming an already volatile retail industry. After the 2008 financial crash, retailers seeking to cut labor costs doubled down on “just-in-time scheduling.” This moved full-time workers to part-time work, with schedules that fl uctuated with demand. Companies now automate workers’ schedules using algorithms that forecast demand by the hour. These volatile hours strain working families and have exacerbated financial insecurity for millions of low-income households. Far from a temporary response to an economic downturn, ten years after the crash involuntary part-time employment is still elevated and low pay, with unstable hours and few benefits, is still the norm in retail jobs.

    In response to this crisis hurting working families, cities and states across the country are raising wages, restoring a fair workweek, and guaranteeing earned sick time along with paid family leave. However, those gains are now threatened. As a result of lagging public policy in fi nancial regulation, retail chains are buckling under heavy debt and closing stores, primarily from risky leveraged buyouts by private equity fi rms. Meanwhile Amazon dramatically expanded, emerging as the second largest retail employer in America and a corporate monopoly that threatens our economy. These forces of financialization and corporate concentration will impact how retail adapts to the rise of e-commerce and integrates new technologies. Meanwhile policymakers are expanding their push for family-sustaining jobs and going beyond labor standards to pursue policies that would deliver financial reform, curb corporate monopolies, and address job displacement from automation and bankruptcy.

    Given the rapid transformation and growing volatility in retail, what are the opportunities and challenges presented by emerging technologies? This report both offers a brief synthesis of retail industry predictions on automation, job displacement and e-commerce, and then turns to key insights from our survey of the frontline retail workforce. Our data reveals workers’ own predictions on what the future will hold and sheds new light on the breadth of technologies currently used in stores.