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Technology shakes the supermarket

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Technology shakes the supermarket

This article is part of the On Tech Newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it during the week.

The grocery store might be the most visible place to see the ripple effects of technological change on American consumers, businesses and workers.

That’s an insight from my colleague Sapna Maheshwari, who recently wrote about the ways that pandemic-related disruptions in food purchases are making grocery stores look more like Amazon warehouses.

We talked about the upheaval of what is so far a relatively small percentage of Americans skipping the grocery store to order online, and how stores and their workers are navigating the unknown future of groceries.

Shira: What’s New in Americans? grocery shopping habitsand what does that mean for stores?

SapnaThe biggest change is that many more people during the pandemic started ordering groceries online for pickup in stores or for home delivery. Purchase online grew quickly, but still not huge. Industry folks told me it’s less than 10 percent of grocery purchases now.

Even that relatively small change is the biggest shock to the industry in years and a challenge. For every order that we pick up at the store or that we have delivered, someone is personally purchasing food for us. Grocery stores usually don’t have a lot of financial leeway. The industry standard is around $ 5 profit on a $ 100 grocery purchase.

How are grocery vendors trying to handle this?

The main way is to try anything to make store workers more efficient in ordering groceries to keep costs down. One executive told me that every second counts.

Some stores use handheld devices that direct workers to the quickest route through the store to the 20 items on the buyer’s list. Some food packaging has been changed so that a worker does not waste time weighing a pound of apples; instead, you can just grab a pre-made bag of apples.

That sounds like an Amazon warehouse or other e-commerce distribution center.

That’s how it is. Shopkeepers are in this awkward phase where they don’t know how future generations will want to shop. So grocery stores are trying to do double duty as in-person shopping venues and online ordering assembly lines similar to an Amazon warehouse.

One difference is that most people don’t see what goes on in an e-commerce hub. Changes in grocery store operations and jobs are happening where we are pushing our shopping carts. It is such a clear example of how technology is changing our lives in one of the most common places in America and for a large workforce.

Great point. And how do store workers feel about the changes in their jobs?

It varies. I spoke to someone who liked the stimulation and physical activity of walking around a store preparing grocery orders.

I’ve also talked to employees who were crushed by the amount of work automated systems were doing and measured it by how quickly they assembled orders. A worker told me about the fear of bamboo skewers. They are often near meat or seafood counters, which might make sense for an in-person shopper who wants to make kebabs. But it’s less efficient for a store worker to find your dozens of items per hour.

Is this temporary stress for stores and workers? If most people start shopping online rather than in person, can supermarkets focus on making food pickup and delivery better for everyone involved?

I do not know. The Kroger supermarket chain has made headlines for invest in automated department stores with robots that the company says will eventually do much of the work of assembling grocery orders. Other companies are testing mini warehouses attached to the shops They are designed solely for assembling online orders.

Most grocery stores can’t spend what Walmart or Amazon do to invest in new technology. And some of the technology that promises to help shopkeepers or store workers perfect the online order picking and packing process may be silly. There may not be an ideal future for shoppers, supermarkets, and grocery store workers.



  • Scientific and technological research has brought together the Senate: A bill to spend $ 250 billion to foster advancements in new technologies was easily passed in the Senate, writes my colleague Catie Edmondson. (It’s more complicated in the House.) Americans and American politicians don’t usually like to spend taxpayer money to prop up private industries, but I wrote earlier this year about how competition with China has changed many minds. There is more on this in “The Daily”.

  • What’s new and potentially useful in your latest phone software: My colleague Brian X. Chen goes over some of the updated features of the operating systems for iPhone and Android phones. They include automatic iPhone messages to tell people you’re too busy to text and more clarity on Android devices about when apps are accessing your phone’s camera or using your location.

  • They are stressed to entertain us: My colleague Taylor Lorenz writes that the age-old burnout problem among people who find fame online is now reaching young TikTok stars. He spoke to people who knew about the routine of building an online audience and were still surprised to find that they are struggling with the demands of constantly creating new material.

You have to read this series of tweets of a woman who was trying to help her dad find a job at Costco. There are walleye and back channel posts with a Costco manager. I won’t spoil the ending.


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