Sunday, November 7, 2010

Robots in the Grocery Store, Marketers in Your Food

My local Giant Foods has been bugging me. It seems like the experience of shopping there keeps getting more ghetto (and it's not even in Baltimore). I go out of my way to shop at other stores because frankly I'm annoyed by all the new technology in my neighborhood  Giant. Technology that seems to be designed to police shoppers rather than to help them accomplish their actual mission of buying food.

7 Reasons Why Robots And Groceries Don't Work
Unemployment is at its highest in decades so why the heck are supermarkets replacing jobs with robots? By robots I mean, robo-cashiers. At the Giant Foods by my house when you walk in you can pick up this hand-held scanner. As you move around the super market you essentially ring yourself up while you shop. All this technology sounds handy, and this may be a boon to the anti-social or impatient, but there are fundamental problems with this;

#1 It's obviously very expensive to develop and deploy this type of technology. Couldn't the store simply have hired real human beings? In this economy I would rather somebody had a job.

#2 It has no affect on the quality of the products that the grocery store is selling. None of this technology actually makes Giant/Safeway a better store, it just makes it so they get their money from you quicker.

#3 YOU are doing THEIR JOB for them, and you're not getting paid for it. It's called "externalizing" and Giant/Safeway is externalizing their expense to their customers.

#4 It's not designed well. IF this type of service were designed well, then you would have a smart shopping cart and you literally wouldn't have to think about scanning anything, it would just be automatic.

#5 Does it make sense for businesses to develop services specifically for the "impatient" and  "anti-social" people of society?

#6 It undermines customer service. If the customer interface is a machine, then who listens to peoples questions or suggestions?

#7 Are people actually getting through the robo-cashiers quicker than they would if a good human cashier were helping them?

Are Grocery Store "Club Cards" Legal?
Aside from conveniences like being able to ring yourself up and bag your own groceries, it seems like supermarkets are OBSESSED with club cards. At my local Giant/Safeway store you'll recognize the Club Card. If you "opt in" to their rewards program, you get this card entitling you to discounts and rewards when you shop at that store.  As you shop around one of these stores you notice items on sale ONLY for club members. Now, these stores are not members only stores like Costco. Anybody is free to walk in off the street and buy groceries. But what if somebody does not want to participate in the rewards program? What if somebody for whatever personal reason can not participate even if they want to? - Is it FAIR for people who cannot or do not want to participate in these schemes to pay more for FOOD than other people? Is that legal?

But more to the point, what does Giant/Safeway gain by tracking all of their customers purchases? What do they think they know about me? . . .

Stuck With A Database Dictating What I Eat
When I shop at Whole Foods or the farmer's market, junk food temptations simply do not enter my mind the same way that they do at the Giant/Safeway. There is not an entire 400 square foot aisle dedicated to Coke at Whole Foods. So I wonder, What data is Giant collecting from it's customers that makes it so they keep selling enormous quantities of crap to the neighborhood? - Obviously they are selling lots of junk food because they keep stocking it. Somebody's buying it. Now this Giant is not in the city of Baltimore, it's not really in a Ghetto. This store is surrounded by plenty of affluent Towson residents, hardly the kind of people who load up on junk food week after week. So here's what's really odd about the marketing tactics at Giant - the products they sell the most of - the least healthy things - are always on sale to "members". This means that a lot of cheap people who want all the discounts they can get, are determining what the grocery store sells. The reason why Coke is always on sale is because people keep coming back to the Giant to buy it on sale. So this means there will always be lots of high fructose corn syrup on sale. The flip side is the grocery store has no incentive to try new perhaps healthier products, or reach out to new customers, because they've fixed themselves in a profitable cycle. Worst of all, all the questionable data they collect will continue this cycle.
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To me, a grocery store's job is to sell food. Period. Don't tell me what I should be eating, please do not coerce me into "bargains", just sell me food. That's all. What I've noticed between the robo-cashiers and the club card discounts is a whole lot of 'savings' on poor food and a whole bunch of employees just trying to maintain sanity. I think the business practices of a lot of big grocery stores undermine communities, reduce the number of jobs and demean their own employees and customers. It would be great if I could walk into a Giant store and have a grown up conversation with an employee about food. A conversation where we both feel valued as a customer and a worker.

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