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April 29, 2019

Stop & Shop strike reveals concerns about job-killing technology

Photo | Jim Michaud, Journal Inquirer Stop & Shop's roving robot “Marty” patrols the aisles looking for spills. He isn't perceived as a job killer, but competitors like Walmart have introduced robots that clean and scan inventory.
HBJ PHOTO | Matt Pilon New Britain Stop & Shop worker Wanda Jablonecki (right) said she has taken note of an increasing number of self-checkout kiosks at area stores.
Christopher Andrews, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Drew University

While health and retirement benefits were the top reasons more than 30,000 Stop & Shop workers across Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island went on an 11-day strike this month, another concern lingered in the background for picketing employees.

In the hypercompetitive, low-margin grocery retail industry, Stop & Shop and rivals like Walmart and Amazon (which now owns Whole Foods and has also opened a handful of its own “Amazon Go” high-tech grocery stores) continue to tinker with new and evolving technologies that carry the potential to replace human workers.

It's a concern that's played out over the decades in agriculture, manufacturing and other industries, and it's one that continues to evolve as technologies like artificial intelligence advance.

From self-checkout kiosks that have become commonplace over the past two decades to more recent developments like cashierless stores, cleaning robots and self-driving delivery vehicles, supermarkets may be the latest ground zero for the age-old clash between automation and relatively low-skilled labor, experts say.

“The pressure on these stores is insanely intense,” said Christopher Andrews, an assistant professor of sociology at Drew University in New Jersey who studies technology's impact on the grocery business. “I think the industry is going to always look for ways to increase efficiency, maximize productivity and reduce labor costs.”

Interestingly, despite the rise in grocery-store technology, the number of cashiers and overall workers employed by supermarkets has risen over the past two decades. Even still, the technology threat looms.

A 2017 report from New York-based management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. concluded that automation, including AI, could eliminate up to 73 million U.S. jobs by 2030.

Up to 44 percent of current work activity hours could be automated this decade, the report said, adding that automation is expected to displace the greatest number of work hours in jobs that involve processing and collecting data, and predictable physical activities.

“The changes in net occupational growth or decline imply that a very large number of people may need to shift occupational categories and learn new skills in the years ahead,” McKinsey said. “The shift could be on a scale not seen since the transition of the labor force out of agriculture in the early 1900s in the United States and Europe, and more recently in China.”

Worker perspective

Picketing with her fellow employees and members of the United Food and Commercial Workers International (UFCW) on day seven of the strike this month, Wanda Jablonecki said she's witnessed firsthand the rise of the machines at Stop & Shop, where she's worked for the past 22 years.

That's included the advent of self-checkout lanes and deli-ordering touchscreen kiosks, as well as this year's debut of a roving robot named “Marty” that patrols the aisles and alerts employees of spills.

In her current role as front-end manager at the New Britain supermarket, Jablonecki oversees cashiers as well as five self-checkout lanes, where customers scan and bag their own groceries.

She said Stop & Shop installed additional self-checkout kiosks in a few other area stores last year, including Wethersfield, and she expects the same to happen at her store.

“They want to add more self-scans, which means less cashiers,” Jablonecki said.

She said technology wasn't a main factor in the strike or contract negotiations, but it did creep its way into the conversation.

For example, as the strike got underway on April 11, Hamden Stop & Shop employees chanted “Marty in every store, pay your humans more!” according to the New Haven Independent.

The UFCW also accused Stop & Shop of “replacing real customer service with more serve-yourself checkout machines.”

At the end of the day, Jablonecki said she was less concerned about the robot, than she was about health insurance, pension contributions and Sunday wages. Unlike the recent introduction of a fleet of cleaning and inventory-scanning robots by nonunion grocery competitor Walmart, Marty, while he annoys some employees, isn't widely perceived as a threat to jobs.

“We can handle Marty at the store level,” she said.

The Stop & Shop strike ended April 22 after five union locals of the UFCW agreed to a new contract. However, terms of the agreement, including whether any promises were made about job protections related to technology, weren't made public as of press time.

Stop & Shop said at the outset of the strike that any new deal had to, among other aims, allow the company to continue investing in “critical technological innovations.”

Asked what role technology played in the negotiations, Stop & Shop spokeswoman Jennifer Brogan didn't offer specifics, but said the company has a “long and successful history of driving important technological innovations.”

“As we have in the past, Stop & Shop will continue to use technology to enable our associates to connect with and serve our customers and communities even more effectively, including by freeing associates from certain work to allow them more time to focus on customer-related activities,” Brogan said.

As competitors develop new technologies with the aim of reducing costs, leveraging data, offering new options to customers and improving service, “Stop & Shop must do the same or both the company and its associates risk being left behind,” she added.

Brogan said Stop & Shop added more self-checkout lanes during a series of renovations to 21 area stores last year.

Counterintuitive cashier count

In his research over the past decade, Andrews — the Drew University professor — has discovered something seemingly counterintuitive.

Despite the spread of self-checkout kiosks over the past 20 years, the number of cashiers working in grocery stores and supermarkets actually increased between 2002 and 2017, and remained stable when accounting for population growth, according to federal data he included in his recently published book, “The Overworked Consumer: Self-Checkouts, Supermarkets, and the Do-It-Yourself Economy.”

Overall, employment in the grocery industry has also grown over that time, from 2.3 million to 3.6 million, and annual payroll costs have climbed along with it.

In his book, Andrews wrote that a number of factors could be blocking self-checkout technology from delivering on the labor-savings promised by companies that manufacture the systems.

For one, self-checkout lanes have seen higher rates of customer theft. The systems also require employees or contractors to maintain and monitor them, meaning they may be displacing lower-cost labor with higher-cost work. Some customers are annoyed about having to do more work themselves using often finicky machines, and some union contracts effectively block grocery stores from laying off employees and replacing them with technology, Andrews said.

Many companies, he added, have been hesitant to fully replace their human cashier checkout lanes with self-service lanes, and some have even pulled back on the presence of self-checkouts.

However, Andrews said he's not ruling out that there could be impacts that play out over a longer term. If system manufacturers find ways to reduce theft rates and more customers grow accustomed to using self-checkout, cashier ranks could shrink.

“Cashiers haven't been eliminated due to a series of contingent factors, but if those contingencies are dealt with, it is possible we could see job losses,” he said.

And just because cashier ranks have held steady, it doesn't mean that other evolving technology, like self-driving delivery vehicles, won't cause a decline in other types of grocery employees, he said. Since self-driving cars are largely in their testing phase, data showing any impacts on human drivers isn't yet available.

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