NEW YORK — Giant Food Stores employees will have some extra help on the floor from a new assistant: a 6-foot-5-inch, 130-pound, gray and googly eyed robot named “Marty.”
There will be one of these robots in each store, equipped to scan aisles for such hazards as a fallen bag of sugar, jug of milk, or fruit, said Nicholas Bertram, president of Carlisle, Pa.-based Giant Food Stores. The robot will have a name tag and seemed to move slowly enough for customers to snag a selfie.
This is part of a massive robot rollout from Giant’s parent, Ahold Delhaize USA, which announced Monday that nearly 500 robots will be arriving at Giant/Martin’s and Stop & Shop stores. Giant/Martin’s, with 172 stores, expects the rollout to be completed by mid-2019 and would not disclose the cost.
Most robots have been used in manufacturing and away from the areas where people actually shop, said Steven Keith Platt, research director at Northwestern University’s Retail Analytics Council. Ahold’s announcement, Platt said, is the largest front-of-store robot rollout in the world.
"This is a huge leap in getting human beings comfortable and interacting with robots,” Platt said after speaking on a National Retail Federation panel Monday alongside Giant’s Bertram at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York. “It really puts robots in front of people in a retail environment. It’s the first of many more to come in the next several years.”
In the highly competitive grocery market, chains are trying to edge each other out with a superior in-store experience and seamless online ordering options. In an October blog post, Walmart wrote about how 78 stores had a self-driving robot cleaning floors and the company planned to expand the technology to 360 stores.
Giant was piloting its “Marty” robot for a year in its stores at 4211 Union Deposit Rd. in Harrisburg and 255 Spring Garden St. in Carlisle.
Badger Technologies CEO Tim Rowland pointed to his Marty robot outside his display booth at the National Retail Federation conference on Monday. The robot is a partnership between Ahold’s Retail Business Services unit and Badger Technologies, a product division of U.S.-based global manufacturer Jabil.
Rowland explained how the “Marty” robot is equipped with an autonomous base with a 12-hour battery and a rotating LIDAR, which is a detection system similar to radar but one that uses light from a laser to detect objects and movement. This is how the robots avoid bumping into shoppers filling up their grocery carts. There are also embedded cameras and LED backlighting to help the robot see down the aisles.
If something has fallen off the shelf, Rowland explained, this robot will get as close as possible to the spill or hazard, flash its lights yellow and use Spanish and English to caution in an alert system. Then, Rowland said, the store’s public address system will be able to say “clean up on aisle five” until an employee cleans it up.
Allowing robots to do “repetitive tasks," such as scanning shelves and floors, enables groceries to do more with their workers, Rowland said.
Millions of people could be displaced by automation, forcing these workers to switch jobs or learn new skills, according to a 2017 report from McKinsey Global Institute. Though this new technology may create new jobs in some situations, the report estimated up to 800 million people globally will need to find another job by 2030.
The types of jobs most likely to be displaced by automation are “physical ones in predictable environments, such as operating machinery and preparing fast food.”
This technology at Giant stores will not be replacing the need for in-store employees and instead, Bertram said, it will be “replacing tasks.”
Badger also developed the robot’s capabilities to include scanning shelves for out-of-stock items, but that is not part of this rollout and will be employed in 2020.
“We need to be, in the retail industry, taking advantage of this exponential growth in technology," Bertram said on the panel Monday, "not avoiding it.”