Attention shoppers: I’ve seen the future of grocery store technology, and let me tell you, we can do better.
I’m no Marty McFly. I simply reside in a small Connecticut town, which means that in addition to doing Extremely New England things like commuting to the city on the Metro North, bragging about beaches, and the fact that the state inspired the picturesque fictional town in Gilmore Girls, I occasionally spend some time on the weekends shopping for groceries at a local Stop & Shop.
Prior to 2019, the Stop & Shop shopping experience was similar to that offered by most any other large grocery store chain. But this year, Stop & Shop introduced giant, gray, aisle-patrolling robots at more than 200 stores in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Jersey.
Now, food shopping comes with unprecedented levels of anxiety and absurdity.
Each of the robots weighs a massive 140-pounds and costs a whopping $35,000. Oddly, all of the robots are named Marty, and atop their tall frames — which tower over my own 5 foot, 3 inch stature — rests a large pair of google eyes. You know, so as not to come off as complete faceless, emotionless, lifeless bots. If you’re confused as to what these rolling mechanical columns do, Martys also wear the following description on their bodies like a name tag:
This store is monitored by Marty for your safety. Marty is an autonomous robot that uses image capturing technology to report spills, debris, and other potential hazards to store employees to improve your shopping experience.
Essentially, once Marty identifies a hazard using its sensors, it stops in its tracks, changes its signature operating lights from blue to yellow, and repeatedly announces, “Caution, hazard detected,” in English and Spanish. One of several catches to their existence, however, is that the robots don’t actually clean anything.
Marty does a whole lot of nothing
Marty is advertised as an aisle-sweeping superhero, but it’s simply a messenger that shouts about a problem until a more capable human comes and removes whatever the hazard may be. Upon learning this fact, some people, like myself and the woman heard in this video shared by Twitter user @jennlynnjordan, are rightfully confused.
“Oh, I thought it washed the floor,” the unimpressed mystery shopper can be heard saying. “Wow… I’ve got my husband to tell me there’s a mess!” she continued, delivering a burn to both Marty and her semi-helpful hubby. As Jessica McKenzie reports for the New Food Economy , employees aren’t the biggest fans of the machines either.
“It’s really not doing much of anything besides getting in the way,” an employee told McKenzie. And in some cases, the machines even create morework.
A January press release states that the in-store robots are supposed to “enable associates to spend more time serving and interfacing with customers,” but one of the robot’s major flaws that its sensors appear to treat each hazard with the same level of caution. A harmless bottle cap or errant piece of cilantro will elicit the same response as a spill of clear liquid that someone could genuinely slip and injure themselves on, which means that in certain cases an employee may have to take time that could be spent interacting with a customer to walk across the store and grab a puny little grape that escaped a bag. Seems counterproductive!