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Fast Fashion Police: Data, Technology, and Retail Worker Monitoring

Mon, August 14, 10:30am to 12:10pm, Palais des congrès de Montréal, Floor: Level 5, 515A


This paper explores how fast fashion retail chains-- which quickly design, produce and sell tremendous amounts of trendy, cheap clothing-- harness data analytics to transform in-store operations. I consider: in collecting metrics about sales and employee performance, how do computerized management systems actively shape how employees relate to the workplace? With a vast set of data—including but not limited to cashier speed, customer traffic, past sales, and even the weather— retailers attempt to optimize labor to more precisely meet store demands. Thus, along with lean, just-in-time production, fast fashion has ushered in a similarly lean, just-in-time workforce. I argue that a sinister, though not entirely closed, feedback loop has emerged: the shift in staff composition brought about by digitized scheduling—with higher turnover throughout the day and very little stability from week to week—drives employers to more seriously surveil their workers through other means, such as biometric fingerprint scanners and point-of-sale surveillance. At the same time, my ethnographic insights reveal how front-line employees consistently avoid complete control, whether at the timeclock, the cash register, or on the salesfloor—often relying on technology of their own to do so.