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Central Pa.s most well-known robot is celebrating a milestone.
It has been more than one year since Giant Food Stores started its nationwide rollout of Marty at 177 stores.
Standing 6-foot-4, the slender, slow-moving employee glides around the chains stores checking for spills and safety hazards.
He has become a celebrity. Kids love him and several Facebook pages are dedicated to him. Last fall Marty even inspired a pet shop tortoises Halloween costume.
Some shoppers greet the googly-eyed robot or snap selfies with him. Others appear annoyed or agitated as they attempt to navigate their shopping carts around him.
William Rucker and his grandson Justice, say hello to a robot named Marty as it scans the floors at a Giant grocery store in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. AP Photo/Matt Rourke)AP
On a recent PennLive Facebook post, reactions to Marty ranged from affection to animosity.
I think hes adorable. And if he gets in your way, its only momentarily and not enough to ruin the shopping experience, wrote Mary Katherine.
So creepy! I feel uncomfortable shopping when its roaming, chimed in Elisa Cannaday.
Other responses bordered on comical like this one from Heather Slaughter McGrath Lawless: The perfect man good listener always on the look out .. children love him Is he single?
Shopper Faith Marie shared this story on the post: He scared me the other day and I thought maybe be could understand me. I asked where the kidney beans were and he turned and I started to follow him. I looked closer and saw that he was merely cleaning the store. I thought man the blind leading the blind.
It wasnt too long ago robots seemed futuristic, something out of a sci-fi movie. Now, the roving machines are as common at grocery stores as self-checkouts and shopper club cards. But the technology is raising concerns over privacy and job security.
Today its a little Twilight Zone, said Jeff Metzger, president and publisher of Food Trade News, a grocery industry publication.
A growing force
Last year, Giants parent company Ahold Delhaize USA, deployed Marty at some Martins and Stop & Shop locations, raising the ranks to more than 500 machines. Ahold said the technology is designed to improve in-store efficiencies, eliminate accidents and free up employees to better serve customers.
Giant spokeswoman Ashley Flowers said Giant has no additional plans at this time for Marty. Giant has said in the past its robots are not intended to replace workers.
Marty is not the only robot patrolling grocery aisles.
Walmart unleashed automated floor scrubbers at 1,500 stores and has 350 Bossa Nova shelf-scanning robots in action, with plans to expand the fleet to 1,000 by this summer. The chain has also implemented high-tech pickup towers, an oversized vending machine that allows shoppers to pick up online orders.
All three of the technologies are used at Walmart in Carlisle. There the robot maneuvers around the aisles scanning shelf tags for out of stock and low inventory items. He catches the attention of some shoppers who do double-takes or try and talk to the machine. For the most part, shoppers leave it alone.
When it first came in a lot of (customers) thought was was really cool. For now, its almost commonplace, said Thomas Herd, store manager.
On the West Coast, Simbe Robotics in San Francisco has deployed Tally, a slender 5-foot tall robot at 15 St. Louis-based Schnuck Markets. The robot is also being tested as part of a pilot program at Giant Eagle stores in Pittsburgh and parts of Ohio.
Simbe Robotics in San Francisco has deployed Tally, a slender 5-foot tall robot, at 118 St. Louis-based Schnuck Markets. The robot is also being tested as part of a pilot program at Giant Eagles in Pittsburgh and parts of Ohio.Photo provided by Simbe Robotics
Tally is equipped with sensors and cameras to track inventory and incorrect prices. The robots traverse the aisles several times per day, scanning about 35,000 products in the center store grocery and health, care and beauty aisles, according to the company.
In the case of Giant Eagles pilot, Tally sends detailed data reports to store teams every 30 minutes. The reports capture, report and analyze the availability and state of merchandise.
Technology like automation can help the store teams much like a power tool to a carpenter helps them be more efficient, said Brad Bogolea, Simbes CEO and co-founder.
Tracking inventory can be a major undertaking for retailers who risk lost profits and customers when products are missing from shelves. According to the IHL Group, retailers lose up $1.75 trillion annually due to the cost of overstocks, out-of-stocks and needless returns.
Thats a big deal for retailers, especially with competition from Amazon. At least one-quarter of Amazons revenue, Bogolea said, comes from customers who went to a store and couldnt find what they were looking for.
In the end, the robots help shoppers find what they need and also free up employees to focus on customer service and more meaningful tasks, instead of stock checks, which can be mundane or monotonous.
But the devices might be backfiring. Some Walmart workers told the Washington Post the robots make them feel more like machines. Workers at one of the stores in Georgia said the robots have suffered breakdowns, needed retraining and have taken wrong routes around the store.
Some also feel like their most important assignment now is to train and babysit the often inscrutable robot colleagues, according to the story.
Carlisles Herd said they havent encountered any issues at his store and the robots have saved countless hours of work once done by a handful of employees. Those workers are now directed to other tasks like stocking shelves, he said, adding no employees have lost their jobs because of the robots.
"Its here to make our jobs more efficient, to better serve customers, Herd said.
Are they spies?
For shoppers, their first encounter with these robots is often at the supermarket.
At times, it can be hard to coexist. Constant beeping and blocking aisles were among the top complaints named on the PennLive Facebook post. Some said they think the machines are spies recording their every move as they buy breakfast cereal, spaghetti sauce and frozen green beans.
There is some skepticism associated with the robots that ranges from shoppers questioning grocers investments to how the robots are being used to whether employees will be out of jobs, said Charles Palmer, associate professor of interactive media at Harrisburg University in Harrisburg.
There will be those type of complaints. We see that with all types of technology unveiled. It takes the general public a while to get used to it, he said.
Simbes Bogolea said introducing automation can be a bit of a process when you consider that physical retail hasnt changed much since the arrival of the bar code and cash registers.
Most of what people know about robots today ... is what they see in the movies or they may have a vacuum cleaning robot at home, he said.
The grocers Bogoleas company partners with educate employees and emphasize the value of the robots to employees and shoppers. Signs in the stores explain the robots.
Giants Marty robots are affixed with signs explaining the machines are autonomous and designed to check floors for hazards. Harrisburg Universitys Palmer said the robots are personalized with the googly eyes and name tags for a reason.
With a personality, the robots pose less of a threat to shoppers, he said.
As far as any notion the robots are spying on you as you shop, Bogolea said the sensor data used for Tallys navigation is similar to a Tetris or Minecraft game and not designed for security or customer analytics.
When Tally navigates around customers, those sensors stop capturing shelf data for privacy reasons, he added.
I think the way we have designed the robot, Im surprised how seamlessly it blends into the space, and its surprising how many people dont notice it, he said.
Robots are here to stay. In fact, many say the technology has far-reaching applications.
Increasingly, technology has become a significant part of retailers budgets and uses will likely expand to warehouses and grocery delivery and pickup facilities, Metzger said.
Online grocery shopping now accounts for more than six percent of grocery-related spending in the United States, according to Bricks Meets Clicks.
The novelty aspect significantly outstrips the potential they have for interior applications, he said.
Wegmans said it has no plans to involve robots in its stores. Weis Markets said it is examining various technologies, including cloud-based systems, but hasnt come to a decision, said spokesman Dennis Curtin.
Harrisburg Universitys Palmer said robots like Marty are harbingers, providing ideas about how the technology can be used. He said shoppers can expect more mobile applications linked to cell phones such as ones that might help them find items on their grocery lists.
Eventually, the robots might have capabilities to detect whether certain produce like avocados are rotting so the items can be pulled from the shelf, Bogolea said. But he said the robots will likely never have arms or interact directly with shoppers.
When it comes to picking products, we shouldnt underestimate how good human design and vision is. ... I dont think shoppers are really interested in a retail shopping experience with a large number of robots across the physical store, he said.
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Love or hate Giants Marty, more robots are coming to supermarkets near you - pennlive.com