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QR codes replace service staff as pandemic spurs automation in US

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Alexa Allamano used to pay a woman to work as a part-time salesperson at her Whidbey Island, Washington, jewellery store. But when Foamy Wader reopened from a months-long closure owing to the coronavirus crisis in October, that job was done by QR codes.

Allamano restructured her store so that as passers-by peruse her window displays, they can use their smartphones to scan the QR codes beside each item to purchase.

“It’s like online shopping, but in real life,” said Allamano.

Now customers only come inside the shop to pick up orders or for consultations on custom pieces, and Allamano works alone.

American workers in manufacturing plants and distribution centres have long worried that their employers would find ways to replace them with robots and artificial intelligence, but the Covid-19 crisis has brought that threat to service workers, too. Businesses are increasingly turning to automated tools for customer service tasks long done by low-wage staff.

But rather than robots, it is the ubiquitous QR matrix bar codes that are replacing humans.

Many restaurants have begun to experiment with QR codes and order management systems such as Toast that allow diners to order food to their table from their phones instead of with human servers. Grocery stores have increased their investments in self-checkout kiosks that replace human cashiers, and more convenience stores including Circle K are experimenting with the computer vision technology pioneered by Amazon Go to allow customers to make purchases without standing in a checkout line at all.

The shifts mean that some of the 1.7m leisure and hospitality jobs and 270,000 retail jobs the US economy has lost since its February 2020 high are unlikely to return.

“With these jobs, there was always some risk of automating but the push was not there,” said Casey Warman, a professor at Dalhousie University who specialises in labour economics. “Covid nudged those jobs.”

Many business owners including Allamano say they are still desperate to hire human workers, but a months-long worker shortage has made them hard to find. Economists say the risk of contracting the Delta coronavirus variant combined with expanded unemployment benefits and closed schools have kept some workers at home.

The Foamy Wader’s former employee decided to stay home full-time to educate her son and Allamano’s advertisement for the open role only drew one application. The new technologies help bridge the gap, Allamano said.

Alexa Allamano’s shop window showing QR codes through which customers can buy her products © Alexa Allamano

Labour economists say workplaces regularly make leaps in automation during economic downturns, as tighter margins force them to be more productive with fewer resources. Repetitive jobs are the most vulnerable.

Women without college degrees are most likely to lose work, according to Warman’s research. Thousands of administrative assistants, telemarketers and payroll clerks were replaced by computers during the 2007 financial crisis, according to a paper from the Philadelphia Federal Reserve.

“This happened before and it’s happening again,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow who studies technology at the Brookings Institution.

Employers have focused on using automation to speed up distribution centres and supply chain operations in the years after the recession. But the Covid crisis drove the adaptation of automated customer service tools as both consumers and business owners looked to reduce face-to-face interactions as much as possible, said Muro.

“This whole thing has been a big product placement [advertisement] for tech solutions,” Muro said.

Alex Shahrestani, a partner at a law firm specialising in tech in Austin, Texas, had been looking to hire an intern or paralegal to help with scheduling and onboarding new clients when the pandemic shifted their business remote.

“While everyone was trying to figure out zoom calls, I figured that people would be a lot more forgiving if we are trying out new stuff,” Shahrestani said. “We were already moving in that direction but the pandemic gave us the opportunity to try a lot more.”

The firm uses a programme it built in-house to help clients schedule meetings with lawyers and automatically respond to emails with frequently asked questions such as pricing.

Now Shahrestani is more interested in hiring a computer programmer to expand and maintain his system.

Automations such as the one Shahrestani’s firm uses often create high-skilled programming jobs, but reduce demand for workers without college degrees in the long term, according to Warman.

Rob Carpenter, founder of start-up Valyant AI which makes a voice recognition system that can take orders at fast-food drive-throughs, said many automated tools only have the capability to lighten human workers’ loads. He said most quick-service restaurants did not have a worker dedicated to taking drive-through orders and that many of the 30 restaurants using Valyant’s system were trying to hire more human workers.

“For those who are able to stay in the job, it might improve their job,” said Warman. “But others could get laid off. There will be winners and losers here. With automation, there have always been some winners and losers.”

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