ANU study finds retail industry completely transformed by technology, Covid-19

Australian retail workers are being left behind as rapid shifts in technology reshape the industry, a new study has found.

Retail workers, who make up about 11 per cent of the Australian workforce, are being subjected to increased surveillance, a lack of training, and are being significantly impacted by the rise of online shopping.

And, the industry has been “profoundly transformed” by Covid-19.

That’s the finding of a study conducted by the Australian National University and the University of Sydney, which will be used to shape broader debate of Australia’s retail sector, ahead of the Albanese government’s job summit next month.

The study surveyed 1160 retail workers, about a quarter of whom said they were concerned they would lose work if they did not keep up with the technical skills required.

More than a third of those workers were concerned about being replaced by cheaper labour, and two in five said their employers were using technology to surveil them at work.

Lead researcher Ariadne Vromen said the study had found there is a “real tension” between senior stakeholders in the industry, and the workers – many of whom were vulnerable and low paid.

“Rapid changes including digitisation, the collection and use of big data, and automation are reshaping the retail industry and the skills required to work within it,” Professor Vromen said.

“Workers are less concerned about automation and are more concerned about being replaced by other workers who will be paid less … They see customer service and people skills … as more important than technical skills for being successful in their jobs.

“Retail stakeholders also identified the growth of online shopping as a key transformation in the retail business model, which has prompted a rethink of the traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ stores.”

Professor Vromen said the majority of retail employees were women, and most of the industry could not work from home.

“Younger workers are over-represented in retail, and more than half of the retail workforce are employed on part-time or casual contracts,” Professor Vromen said.

“The vast majority of retail and fast food workers cannot work from home. These are those in the frontline with customer-facing jobs, and others working logistics and warehouses, organising delivery of food and consumable products.

“Only a very small proportion work in an office with predominantly desk work that can be undertaken at home.

“The disruption wrought by Covid-19 is not going away in 2022.”



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