This month’s drawing by A. Crock does a doubletake on Marty.
ORLEANS — If you’ve been to the Stop & Shop supermarket here recently, you may have noticed a new staff member roaming the aisles. He’s seven feet tall, thin, rolls on wheels, and has a pair of big googly eyes.
His name is Marty the Robot, and he arrived in Orleans in May. Although he was out of commission during the summer, Marty has returned for the off-season and is already creating strong impressions on shoppers.
“It’s very creepy,” said Mike Kubiak of Wellfleet. In the produce aisle, he said, Marty lingered next to Kubiak for 90 seconds. “I ran back into the thing in the dairy aisle. It got really close to me again.”
Shopper Amy Crocker of Dennis was also perturbed by the robot’s presence. “It does seem to follow you around, and it’s kind of intimidating,” she said. “I was at the self-checkout, and it looked like it was eyeing me when I was scanning my stuff. I felt like I was being watched.”
It is becoming more common for consumers to be concerned about their privacy in the presence of robots. The New York Times reported last year that retail stores are already testing artificial intelligence that can guess customers’ age and gender, and that recognition often falls along racial lines.
What does Marty do?
This year Stop & Shop has introduced 325 Marty robots to its stores around New England. On the Cape, only large stores received a robot, each of which costs $35,000. Marty’s primary role is improving store safety, according to Stop & Shop corporate director of external communications and community relations Jennifer Brogan.
“We want to make sure the store is as safe as possible for customers,” she said.
Marty beeps as he roams so he doesn’t sneak up behind and surprise shoppers. He’s programmed to perform an hourly survey of the floors, looking for spills, loose items, and other hazards that might cause a customer to slip and fall.
When Marty detects a spill or item on the floor, he puts out an announcement on the storewide public address system to alert employees, who arrive on the scene to clean up.
With Marty on patrol, the company expects customer service will improve. Before Marty, employees scanned the aisles, Brogan said. “Now that Marty does that for them, our employees can stay focused on their jobs and helping customers in their section.”
Brogan believes employees enjoy working with Marty. Kids, too, are “obsessed,” Brogan said. “Many of them take pictures with him.”
She admitted, however, that “for other customers, there’s been an adjustment period. We’re not used to grocery shopping with robots quite yet.”
Employees at the Orleans store expressed some doubts about the robot. Three employees, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Marty is more of a nuisance than a help.
“It’s obnoxious, especially if it stays around one area,” one employee said. “It’s kind of redundant. Someone has to come over and push the button to shut him off” when he locates a spill.
Another employee said that Marty causes traffic jams: “It gets in people’s way. It stops when someone gets close and creates backups. People sometimes say it’s following them aisle to aisle.”
Marty is also oversensitive, going off when he detects tiny objects on the floor — “even a twist tie,” a third employee said. But she thinks Marty has improved since the spring, now identifying only major spills.
In response to such criticism, Brogan said, “Better safe than sorry. If that means he’s picking up stuff like a tag, or a grape stem, or an herb, it’s part of the process.”
Is Marty watching us?
With his tall stature and cameras at several heights, a shopper may get the impression that she is being watched. Brogan said that isn’t the case.
“Some people have asked, ‘Is he monitoring for shoplifting or theft?’ ” she said. “That’s absolutely not the case. He’s not watching or following people, and images that he takes are specifically of the store floors.”
Erin DeWaters, manager of external relations for Ahold Delhaize, Stop & Shop’s parent company, wrote in an email that the robot does not purposefully take pictures of people.
“Marty only takes still photographs of store floors…,” she wrote. “Even cameras at higher heights on the robot are angled down and just enable wider shots of the floor.”
But a close inspection of the robot revealed that one of Marty’s cameras sits at face height and appears to be directed outwards.
“Occasionally, Marty may take a still image that includes a customer,” DeWaters wrote. “All the images that Marty collects are stored securely with a high level of encryption … for a very short period of time and are then destroyed. As an additional step to ensure customer privacy, we have added a feature that blurs a person’s likeness in the event a customer is inadvertently captured in a photo by the robot.”
Although Marty may not be watching you shop, his big cartoon eyes may discourage shoplifting.
Studies have shown that when shoppers feel they are being watched (even by eyes they know cannot see), they are less likely to steal.
Concern robots will eliminate jobs
Although Brogan said that Marty hasn’t replaced any human jobs, some are concerned that robotics in retail will put people out of work. As manual tasks become automated, fewer workers will be needed.
Although for now Marty is only looking at the floor, his list of chores may soon increase. According to Ahold Delhaize’s 2017 annual report, “The robot … eventually will be able to look for errors in shelf pricing and identify out-of-stocks so that associates can replenish the shelves and customers can find what they need.”
The company’s 2018 annual report more explicitly outlines replacing workers with robots.
“We are partnering on technologies that are not only helping us make the customer experience even more personal and relevant but also operate more efficiently and manage labor shortages in our markets,” the company reported. “This includes exciting new collaborations in artificial intelligence and robotics.”
It appears that unions are taking notice. The 2018 report cites the risk that, when it comes to investing in robotics, the company “may not be able to negotiate acceptable terms with unions.”