Supermarket 4.0: implications and opportunities

by Vittorio Provera

The opening of some supermarkets (“Amazon GO” brand) in the United States have recently been reported by the press to have only the presence of employees, at least for the moment, made up of a security guard and staff in charge of restocking the shelves. Customers enter the supermarket, identify themselves thanks to an account and application that generates a QR Code which is passed on a special reader at the turnstiles. So the customer, even in the company of others, will be free to wander around the shelves, choose products, put them in bags or other containers and leave the store (in this case without any barrier or control). After a few minutes, when already engaged in other activities or on the way home, the customer is charged on the appropriate profile and the receipt is loaded on the application. There are already 15 operating outlets, which are expected to become 150 by next year. The store is equipped with a multiplicity of intelligent cameras which basically track the customers’ path and actions every second. In addition, the shelves are equipped with weight sensors which record when a product is lifted for removal; connecting this operation with the filming of the cameras (of course if the product is placed back on the shelf there is no charge). Already on the basis of this concise description, some relevant aspects can be discerned in terms of employment, as well as the registration and interconnection of data, images and information (a privacy matter that we will not deal directly with here). Concerning the employment impact, it is easy to foresee that the process of downsizing the role of operators at checkouts already underway, will increase, at least for those points of sale that will adopt these IT and digital applications. The future does not exclude the reassortment system of the shelves – today substantially delegated to manual activity strictly related to logistics (storage, transport, storage, etc.) – being carried out at least in part through “robotic” procedures. In other words, in the large-scale retail sector there may be a further decrease of medium-low professional figures dedicated to physical and repetitive activities. But there will nevertheless (as happened in the industrial and services sectors) be a process of requalification and investment in human resources (together with financial investments) aimed at creating new specialized professional profiles. The operation of complex automation and digital systems, their maintenance as well as development, must be guaranteed. As an example in our supermarkets, it is necessary to find and train staff dedicated to the design, construction and maintenance of the “intelligent” sales, storage and display spaces, as well as the related equipment and systems necessary for the automation. Therefore, other opportunities and professional figures are created, with the probable need to update certain categories and legal institutions. In fact, new technologies, the new organization of products and services, as well as the greater and distinct professionalism required, also impose an effort on legislators and trade organizations an effective adaptation in terms of: (i) redefinition of the figure of employee, where the qualifying element is the insertion in a project context of which the collaborator is one of the protagonists (with ample flexibility on time, physical workplace and relational dynamics where the content and non-hierarchical aspect prevails ); (ii) maximum attention to professional updating; (iii) enhancement – both in career and economic terms – of creative and innovative contributions; (iv) new classification, also juridical, of the typologies of collaboration, not removing the figure of the so-called self-employment, especially in the sectors characterized by significant intellectual and / or technical design content. In these areas, however, interested parties can feel more stimulated to participate in diversified projects in multiple sectors, with freedom of action rather than subordination.

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