Op-Ed: Who will roam the Stop & Shop aisles?

May 7, 2019

As union workers celebrate the win over Stop & Shop, owned by Dutch multinational Ahold Delhaize, the face of organized labor appears very much alive. The corporation had wanted to cut staff costs, ostensibly to provide “better customer service.”  While citing that labor costs are having a “major impact” on the company’s ability to compete in the changing market, Stop & Shop nevertheless secured a $2 billion profit in 2019.

One of the underlying labor issues not directly addressed in this action is the rise of robotics to replace human sales people. The North Adams Stop & Shop already has six self-scan checkout stations, overseen by a single staff.   Previously each check-out station would have one to two staff – a clerk and a bagger. The math is easy  -11 less employees.

A robot already roams the aisles of Stop & Shop. Many shoppers have marveled. Others have been upset, by “Marty,” the clean-up robot cruising the North Adams store.  Giving a robot a human name, thus personalizing this machine, creates an ominous presence and likely prepares customers for further robots replacing human workers.

Looking down the road, another megastore, Walmart, is aggressively investing in robots to replace human labor in their stores. According to spokesperson Elizabeth Walker, Walmart robots, with the actual name of Smart Associates, “have the huge potential …  [to] make busy stores run more smoothly.” Further, “new technologies minimize the time an associate spends on mundane and repetitive tasks like cleaning floors or checking inventory on a shelf.  This gives associates more of an opportunity to do what they are uniquely qualified for: serve customers face-to-face on the sales floors.” 

Many outside observers see this as another example of building a robotic workforce at the expense of human employees. Such change would eliminate labor strikes, pension contributions, time-and-half weekend work, breaks, and payroll. Actual human associates need healthcare. Not necessary for “Smart Associates.”

In the short-term, the Stop & Shop victory helps current employees preserve their benefits, but does limit similar benefits for future part-time hires. Yet, the future may offer much more serious challenges to all Stop & Shop employees. The roving robot “Marty” just may have siblings ready to roam the halls.

Michael Bedford
North Adams, Mass.
e-mail the author.

Cassils, Inextinguishable Fire, 2015, Single-Channel Video with Sound and Fourteen Encapsulated Breaths, 2017, Hand-Blown Glass, Each Unique; photo by Hideyo Okamura.
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