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The grocery store could be the most visible place to see the impact of technological change on consumers, businesses, and American workers.
This is a finding from my colleague Sapna Maheshwari, who recently wrote about how pandemic changes in grocery shopping are making grocery stores more Amazon stores.
We’ve talked about how a relatively small percentage of Americans have changed to skip the grocery store to order online, and how stores and their employees navigate the unknown future of groceries.
Shira: What’s new in Americans Shopping habits when shopping, and what does that mean for business?
Sapna: The biggest change is that during the pandemic, many more people are ordering groceries online for store pickup or home delivery. Online shopping grew rapidly, but it’s still not huge. People in the industry told me that it is now less than 10 percent of grocery purchases.
Even this relatively small change is the biggest upheaval in the industry in years and a challenge. For every order that we pick up or have delivered in the store, someone makes a personal purchase for us. Grocery stores usually do not have a lot of financial leeway. The industry standard is about $ 5 profit on a $ 100 grocery purchase.
How do grocers try to deal with this?
The main way is to do everything possible to make store staff more efficient at putting together food orders in order to keep costs down. One manager told me that every second counts.
Some stores use handheld gadgets to guide employees through the store to the 20 items on the shopping list. Some food packaging has changed so that a worker doesn’t spend time weighing a pound of apples; instead, she can just grab a pre-made bag of apples.
That sounds like an Amazon warehouse or other e-commerce distribution center.
That’s true. Grocers find themselves in this difficult phase of not knowing how future generations will want to shop. So grocery stores try to serve a dual function as places for personal shopping and online order assembly lines, similar to an Amazon warehouse.
One difference is that most people don’t see what’s going on in an e-commerce center. The changes in grocery stores and jobs are happening where we move our shopping carts. It’s such a clear example of how technology is changing our lives in one of the most ordinary places in America and for a large workforce.
Great point. And how do the branch employees feel about the changes in their jobs?
It varies. I spoke to someone who enjoyed the stimulation and physical activity of walking around a store and putting together grocery orders.
I’ve also spoken to employees who felt humiliated by how much of their work was being guided by automated systems and measured by how quickly they put orders together. A worker told me about the fear of bamboo skewers. They’re often located near meat or seafood counters, which might make sense for a personal shopper looking to make kebabs. However, it is less efficient for a store clerk to find dozens of items per hour among their dozen.
Is this stress temporary for businesses and workers? If most people start shopping online rather than in person, can grocers focus on making grocery collection and delivery better for everyone involved?
I dont know. Grocery store chain Kroger made headlines for investing in large automated warehouses with robots, which the company says will do a lot of the work in gathering food orders. Other companies are testing mini-warehouses attached to stores and designed solely for the use of online orders.
Most grocery stores can’t spend what Walmart or Amazon do to invest in new technology. And some of the technologies designed to help grocers or store clerks perfect the process of picking and packaging online orders could be nonsense. There may not be an ideal future for shoppers, supermarkets, and grocery workers.
Before we go …
Technology and science research have united the Senate: A bill to spend $ 250 billion to encourage breakthroughs in new technology was easily passed in the Senate, writes my colleague Catie Edmondson. (It’s more complicated indoors.) Americans and US politicians don’t usually love spending tax dollars to prop up private industry, but I wrote earlier this year about how competition with China has changed many minds. More on this on “The Daily”.
What’s new and maybe helpful in your latest phone software: My colleague Brian X. Chen walks through some of the updated features of the operating systems for iPhones and Android phones. These include automated iPhone messages to let others know that you are too busy to send text messages and more clarity on Android devices when apps are accessing your phone’s camera or using your location.
They are stressed because they entertain us: My colleague Taylor Lorenz writes that the long-standing problem of burnout among people who become famous online is now reaching TikTok’s young stars. She spoke to people who knew the pain of building an audience online and were still surprised to find they struggled with the demands of creating new material all the time.
You must read this series of tweets from a woman who wanted to help her father find a job at Costco. There is zander and return channel messaging with a Costco manager. I will not spoil the ending.
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