Randall Beach: How to join the robot resistance
People are rising up against the robots.
My column last week about the army of mechanical creepy creatures called “Marty” now invading Stop & Shop supermarkets drew many emails from readers expressing outrage and even vows of resistance.
Meanwhile, thousands of Stop & Shop workers across New England went on strike Thursday after protracted negotiations between their union and management did not produce a new contract agreement. Maybe if you cross the picket line (I wouldn’t do that myself nor recommend it), you will have “Marty” standing there to assist you.
This week, there was more news on the robot front: Walmart announced it will be sending into its stores thousands of these automatons to clean floors, scan shelves to check inventory and unload trucks.
If you believe these corporations are doing this to improve customer service, consider this statement from Michael Dastague, chief financial officer for Walmart U.S.: “As we evolve, there are certain jobs that will go away.”
Walmart has been a leader in installing self-checkout stations monitored by “self-service checkout supervisors” who watch customers do what store employees used to do for those customers. Stop & Shop has those, too, as you must have noticed. I have refused to use them because they are an obvious tool to cut back on workers.
The leaders of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents the striking Stop & Shop workers, have no doubt that the robots, like the self-service checkout stations, are a way for the company to hire fewer employees.
The union representatives also point out that customers enjoy having human interaction: a smiling cashier who will say “hello” and “thank you” and answer your questions about your product selections and assist you.
Felicity Medinger asked me in an email: “Whatever happened to good customer service and the friendly ‘hi’? And the box stores wonder why they are losing business to the internet. The more they cut back, the more people flee to their computers.”
Medinger said she is so irritated by the robot in Stop & Shop that “I call it names when I go by it. It doesn’t care but it sure makes me feel better.”
Medinger, who clearly likes to interact with other humans, said she has had many conversations with Stop & Shop workers about the robots. “One of them told me that because the robot is so tall, it’s really creepy when it seems to be watching with those googly eyes as it peers at him from over the onions or potatoes from the next aisle.”
Medinger added: “Another worker told me that once it takes a picture of a ‘spill’ and calls it out over the intercom, it times the workers to see how fast they come and clean it up, then takes another picture for proof that it is done. Maybe it’s secretly a member of the Nazi party?”
Medinger also wrote: “If I was a worker there, I know I’d be pretty resentful being at the beck and call of a rolling machine with googly eyes.”
Candy Grana reported in an email to me: “Those stupid robots are the most inconvenient convenience I have ever encountered. The one in the Wallingford Stop & Shop travels right down the middle of the aisles, which are already too narrow, so you cannot possibly get past him, or her, or it. This is just another way to eliminate employees.”
Grana added, “For the most part, I have stopped shopping there.”
Paula Notarino told me: “I shop in the West Haven Stop & Shop and I am really considering not shopping there anymore. ‘Marty’ gets in the way of customers. The other day I saw two elderly women trying to get around that stupid robot and it also was in my way while I tried to navigate around it in the aisle.”
Notarino noted people need to realize that “Marty” and those self-checkout machines don’t pay into Social Security and Medicare. “That fund has to be replenished, not cut. Someone, somewhere has to pay into Medicare so we can continue to replenish the fund, and to do that we need well-paying jobs, not robots or self-checkout.”
Heather Carrano emailed me to say: “I protest ‘Marty’ the robot! Last weekend I was shopping on a Saturday during the afternoon, and not only did I have to avoid the robot in the aisles, the check-out lanes were almost exclusively self-checkout.”
Carrano noted, “The grocery stores used to have a cashier and bagger at every lane on weekends. They employed the elderly, high school students, college students, disabled people, moms who only wanted to work while their kids were in school, etc. Every time you use a self-checkout lane, you eliminate a job for a person who needs one.”
Carrano concluded, “We need to protest this increased elimination of jobs by refusing to use self-checkout lanes at stores, and insisting that stores provide cashiers and baggers during peak hours for shoppers. Otherwise the day will soon come where you only have one person supervising the self-checkout lanes and no alternatives for checking out at stores.”
Jo-Anne Consiglio had a similar prediction: “I believe the time is coming where we will walk into most stores and there will only be one human on hand in the entire store, because all of the jobs will be computer or robot-run.”
Certainly I’ve noticed the lines are getting longer at the Stop & Shop I have patronized in Hamden for many years. But recently, my wife and I have begun to drive farther north up Whitney Avenue to Cheshire to buy our groceries at another supermarket chain in order to avoid what we call “Flop & Drop.”
Imagine this: when we had completed our shopping at that Cheshire market and were approaching the checkout area, a smiling employee came out from the cash register (there was nobody on line, even though it was a weekend) and said: “All set? I can take you here!”
I felt as if I had entered the Twilight Zone, had gone back in time to a simpler era.
It’s worth the trip.
Call Randall Beach at 203-680-9345 or email@example.com.