Key to the reorganization of the clothing retail sector has been the introduction of omni- or multi-channel options for consumers, linking online and conventional “bricks and mortar” stores. Retail brands’ advertising and distribution channels now include physical stores, online platforms, mail order and social media. Despite rumors to the contrary, clothing brands do not want to close all their physical stores, but rather to combine online and offline shopping in what is promoted as the convenience of “click and collect” – where people can order online and pick up in person.
All these strategies to implement an increasingly digitalized shopping experience change not only customer behavior, but also city architecture as the larger brands build new stores and showrooms offering a broader range of shopping options to the customer, crowding out smaller independent shops in the process.
The underlying concept is that customers should basically make their own choices and no longer draw on a shop assistant’s advice, relying on algorithms instead. One worker called it “digital outsourcing,” but another corrected this: “It is not outsourced to technology, no. The technology is just the means to outsource it to our customers!” Whether using an app to choose an item of clothing, an Augmented Reality Mirror (AR), or paying at a self-checkout, customers now do all this themselves. The flipside is that sales assistants, whose most valued task had been to provide a rewarding customer service, have seen this taken away — if they even retained their job.
The customers are often forced to use the new technology because staff is reduced and busier with quantifiable tasks such as stock management rather than customer service. So, it’s not necessarily the intention or wish of the customers to engage in digitalized shopping, but often is the only option offered by big retail stores.
Less service, more movement: streamlining and de-skilling
Given that retail work was previously labour-intensive, workers hoped that digitalization would make their jobs less stressful. But the reality proved otherwise: “Of course [we] thought it was great at the beginning. Because it was also [presented] like that, that it makes the work easier, and I mean it does. Meanwhile [we] see there has been a reduction in staff, my work has become monotonous and the workload is increasing. The goods rotate much faster in the store. This is only due to the technology,” Lidya, another sales clerk, tells us.
As well as speeding up routine tasks, workers also have to correct technical errors, such as wrong orders or inventory mistakes. Companies seem to assume that their technology functions perfectly, and avoids human error. However digital errors place even more stress on workers. Incorrect pricing or stock information in ZARA’s own mobile-shopping-App upsets some customers whothen blame the sales staff, who have no influence on the information. This creates conflict between customers and shop assistants, changing the relationship from a normally rewarding one to a negative one.
Workers taking initiatives or showing creativity is out of the question: everything is determined by a small team of designers at headquarters assisted by algorithms. Maram shows us her device: “You see, there is table X, and item Y is missing, which is at location Z. Now you can go there, pick it up and put it there.” And indeed, it is as easy as that: there is no need to know the locations, or even how to read. “And this takes away the fun in the job,” Maram explains. “Being creative, thinking about presenting the merchandise, all this is done automatically. We are just here to stow away the merchandise.” As another worker at Esprit put it: “So basically, the most important aspect of your work falls away. The sad part is, you don’t need to know anything anymore.” This reduces the sales assistants’ role to being “a better mailman” or “a clean-up person for shirts.” Digitalization, streamlining and de-skilling go hand in hand.
In some stores, customers are able to browse the entire store’s collection in digitalized changing rooms, using a touchscreen inside the mirror. They can order items of clothing in different sizes or colors and look for matching accessories. These are then delivered by the sales assistants. This technology requires either more employees to find and put these items aside, or it results in more work for existing staff — it is not hard to guess which. “It’s Chevy and stress, it’s like a rat race,” one worker tells us. Some employees are afraid to take a toilet break because they might be paged up to three times.
The volume of work has also increased. As management sees it, by outsourcing certain tasks to technology, there is more time for workers to perform other assignments. But as the introduction of technology came hand in hand with a decrease in the workforce and the introduction of new activities, the workload in fact increased rather than decreased. RFID and the new ERP systems, for example, show more precisely which clothes sell best where, allowing for much more targeted stock allocation. This increases the volume of merchandise at particular sites, with the expectation of increasing revenues. In addition, the merchandise management system requires clothes now to be rearranged on a daily basis, whereas before it was more often done fortnightly. If the merchandise sells better in another branch or is ordered online, this also has to be prepared for dispatch by the store employees.
Staff end up carrying stacks of clothes through the store every day following the latest algorithmic instructions. They do have physical assistance systems such as mobile clothes rails, but as one sales clerk noted “with a certain work intensity, you think twice: will you do it this slow, correct way, or do you feel that it needs to be done, so I just do it.” In other words, they do not use the physical assistance systems in order to keep up with the speed of so-called ‘digital assistance’. Clearly, technical devices and algorithmic tools are not about assisting the employees.
The result has been a rising sickness rate among workers. “It’s a never-ending story of cleaning up, but it is never clean. I carry away clothes but there is always more piling up in front of the changing rooms. This is not good for the psyche,” Lidya explains. Digitalization has become not “just an incredible physical, but also a psychological burden,” a Zara works council reported.
Digital control and power relations
The earlier example of a manager keeping check of the workers from afar hints at new forms of surveillance and control. RFID and ERP systems enable managers not only to monitor the stock, but also to track workers’ movements in real time. In the European Union, the General Data Protection Regulation and labor legislation make it illegal to track and use personal data. But these regulations do not cover aggregate data on the movement of merchandise, which enables a (real time) comparison of how fast tasks are accomplished and services provided at different hours or shifts in a single store or across branches. This pitches staff and branches against each other in a race to the bottom without needing to have data on individual speed and behavoir.
“We are constantly drilled: it’s always just ‘quick, quick, quick, faster, even faster… who is fastest?’ That way, we are competing against each other,” Maram says. The mere fact that all movements can be tracked creates an atmosphere of pressure, self-policing and mutual control among the workers. This may not show on the surface, but is deeply internalized in how staff think and behave in a situation wherein digital control becomes increasingly normalized.
Digitalization has also opened the door to new forms of precarity. Who is or is not formally employed becomes blurred under German labor law, which has led to some tasks given to contractors with worse working conditions than formal employees. The remaining staff are also pressured to be more flexible and to work the hours the company’s algorithms calculate are most efficient. In January 2021, H&M announced it would fire 800 staff in Germany in its attempts to speed up the digitalization process, getting rid of mainly less flexible single parents and disabled employees.
All this leads to conflicts over working hours, and divisions among workers as permanent staff regard outsourced workers as inferior, making it harder to build solidarity. One worker comments: “When you know that they might be gone after a week or so, you don’t memorize their face or name. It’s just someone who annoys you, because they don’t know how to do their work properly.”
Work places become increasingly competitive, with workers competing with each other, controlling and sanctioning each others’ behavior and even snitching to management to avoid being being punished themselves. “It’s not the store managers who do that, and it’s not the managers. It’s the colleagues themselves who do it, and that’s the hard part,” one worker tells us.
This process leads to isolation and individualization at the workplace at a moment when collective organization is more critical than ever. The staff is no longer a homogeneous community, but rather is split into core staff, contract workers and temp workers. According to older staff, there was a much better team spirit and a sense of unity between the workers 10 or 20 years ago. That solidarity led at the time to the formation of strong works councils.