Innovation Work Chains in US Retail: Automation, Tracking and AI Adoption during the COVID-19 pandemic

Stopford, N. and O'Reilly, J. (2022), Digit Working Paper No. 2


The 2020 global pandemic led to record grocery sales and significantly accelerated the adoption of online retail services. This trend is expected to grow as mainstream retailers aim to keep up with the speed of delivery from ‘digitally native’ competitors and changing consumer expectations. 

Technological innovation is being introduced to different parts of the retail supply chain leading to a changing landscape for jobs. Here we develop the concept of Innovation Work Chains (IWC). We use this framing to discuss how the introduction of different types of innovative technology are likely to impact on employment practices across the supply chain in large-scale grocery retail. This research draws on sector reports and extensive interviews with Walmart US and one of their technology partner organisations in the USA.  

The focus is on how automation technologies like robots, tracking technologies and AI have become pivotal to the efficient management of retail supply chains. The evidence suggests that an iterative process of adoption and adaption is required to develop company specific solutions. However, legacy systems can pose a challenge to the speed at which automation technologies can be efficiently integrated. The concept of Innovation Work Changes highlights the differential impact on the employment landscape across the retail eco-system. 


Stopford, N. and O’Reilly, J. (2022) ‘Innovation Work Chains in US Retail: Automation, Tracking and AI Adoption during the COVID-19 pandemic’, Digit Working Papers No. 2, University of Sussex, Falmer. Available at:

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