RELEASE: Change and Uncertainty, Not Apocalypse: Technological Change and Store-Based Retail

UC Berkeley Labor Center

September 3, 2020
Press contact:
Joe Rivano Barros,

New Report on Future of Retail Predicts More Worker Surveillance, More Displacement of Small Businesses

New technologies in the retail sector are likely to mean more monitoring and coercion of workers, and a stronger advantage for large companies like Walmart and Amazon, according to a new report released today from the U.C. Berkeley Labor Center and Working Partnerships USA.

“We have been hearing about e-commerce wiping out retail stores and jobs, but our two years of research tell a very different story,” said Françoise Carré, the research director of the Center for Social Policy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and co-author of the report. “Most stores, and the jobs within them, will survive, but the content of those jobs will change.”

E-commerce has accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic but stores have still remained an important way of selling goods, the authors find. “During the peak of the lock-downs, 70 percent of people in the U.S. were still buying groceries in stores,” said Chris Tilly, a professor of urban planning and sociology at UCLA and co-author of the report. “And for those that order groceries online, a worker collects their goods from the store and makes them available for curbside pickup or delivery. This shows how technology is in many cases changing workers’ jobs rather than eliminating them.”

In addition to changing the mix of tasks workers are expected to carry out, the report finds that employers are likely to deploy new technologies in ways that increase monitoring and surveillance of retail workers. For example, some retailers are already using in-store cameras and sensors, and wearables or hand-held devices that track workers’ location and movement. These changes will result in more stress and coercion for workers, who will be expected to work faster with fewer breaks.

“We’ve seen what’s already been happening with some jobs in Amazon warehouses, where workers’ movements are closely tracked to monitor their performance and speed,” said Annette Bernhardt, director of the Low-Wage Work Program at the U.C. Berkeley Labor Center. “These changes put workers’ health and safety at risk, and they compromise their basic rights and privacy. There is a real threat that jobs in retail are heading in the same direction.”

This threat to workers may be even more pronounced in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. The circumstances created by the pandemic are likely to accelerate tech adoption among retailers, but only among the companies with the most resources available to invest in technology. This means that small retailers will be at an even greater disadvantage compared to large companies like Walmart and Amazon.

The retail industry is the largest employer in the United States, with some 16 million people working as salespeople, cashiers, stockers, and supervisors. Most of these workers are paid low wages, retail jobs suffer from high turnover, and few workers have the protections and collective voice of a union: just 4% of retail workers were unionized in 2019, down from 9% in 1983. The sector is also growing more consolidated: The share of retail workers employed by firms with fewer than 1,000 employees fell 13% to 10% from 1997 to 2012, while the share of those employed by firms with more than 1,000 employees rose from 52% to 61%.

“The pandemic has underscored how essential the people working in retail are, but it has also exposed how these folks are often treated as disposable by their employers,” said Derecka Mehrens, executive director of Working Partnerships USA. “Retailers like Walmart won’t just suddenly start taking their workers’ well-being seriously. Workers need to organize for a collective voice in their jobs, and policymakers need to enact stronger standards around employer surveillance, rest breaks, and the freedom to organize.”

The report is part of a broader multi-industry research project led by the UC Berkeley Labor Center and Working Partnerships USA, which examines the impact of new technologies on work. The project is supported by the Ford Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Open Society Foundations.