It’s a beautiful weekend morning and you don’t want to spend a chunk of it inside the grocery store. So, you pull up the mobile app for your favorite supermarket, glance at what’s on sale, make a shopping list, apply coupons digitally, choose your items, pay online and enter a pick-up time slot, all on your cellphone.
Hours later, on your way home from the beach or the ball game, you swing by the store, park in a reserved spot, call and let the clerk know you’ve arrived, and five minutes later, you’re headed home with a trunk full of groceries.
Ideally, that’s how the most popular new grocery shopping technology works here in Galveston County, a surefire way to avoid crowded aisles and lines at checkout.
Kroger stores feature designated parking spaces for pick-up, as do Walmart and H-E-B. Walmart offers home delivery, and Randalls offers free delivery anywhere in the county from its Clear Lake City store through randalls.com.
At Target on Galveston Island, customers can order online and pick up their order inside at the customer service desk, still avoiding a hike around the store.
These are some of many technology-enabled grocery shopping strategies being tried out on consumers in the name of saving precious time. In part, it’s a competition to lure customers by offering the most convenient shopping experience using the latest technology.
It’s also an economic necessity driven by retail behemoth Amazon’s entry into the grocery business this year when it bought Whole Foods’ 400-plus stores, opened its experimental cashierless store, Amazon Go, and expanded availability of grocery items through its web site, delivered free to Amazon Prime members.
“You have to be in it now with companies like Amazon cutting into the market,” said Nick Arlan, vice president and general manager of the family owned Arlan’s Market with stores in Galveston, Seabrook and Santa Fe.
This year, Arlan’s began experimenting with online ordering and parking lot pick-up at its Seabrook store. And though it hasn’t yet implemented pick-up in Galveston, that’s only a matter of time, Arlan said.
“It’s not how we’ve done business for the last 27 years,” he said. “We’re trying to figure it out.”
EXPERIMENTS IN ACTION
While companies are pouring millions into new technologies — H-E-B most recently purchased an industrial warehouse in Austin that it’s turning into a state-of-the-art digital research facility to develop new products and digital shopping innovations — none of the technologies in play have proven to be problem-free.
Self-checkout lines, ubiquitous in most stores now, draw customer complaints and require intervention when technology fails or shoppers make mistakes, industry observers say. During busy shopping hours, a wait in the self-check-out line can take as long as waiting for a cashier.
Most recently, Kroger installed Scan, Bag, Go kiosks in many of its stores, including the one on Seawall Boulevard in Galveston. Shoppers can pick up a portable scanner or use a cellphone to scan bar codes on items, bag them as they shop, keep a running tally on how much they’re spending, apply coupons, then pay either at the self-checkout or by phone. A brief check-in with a store associate is required before leaving the store.
Walmart tried Mobile Scan & Go technology last year but abandoned it when retailers concluded they were making their customers work too hard, according to a Bloomberg report.
Arlan has heard rumblings from pick-up customers who arrive at the store during their chosen pick-up time slot but had to wait an extra 30 minutes for their groceries to be brought out, a problem all stores will have to work out, he said.
WHAT DOES IT
MEAN FOR JOBS?
Then there’s the problem of conscience: Do these technologies pave the way for making cashiers obsolete, costing a huge sector of the workforce their jobs?
A 2017 analysis by the World Economic Forum estimated 30 to 50 percent of the world’s retail jobs stand to be eliminated once technologies such as automated checkout became standard.
Last month, Amazon announced plans to open as many as 3,000 of its cashierless grocery stores by 2021, a move roundly condemned by Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
“It is time for America’s elected leaders to wake up to the economic threat Amazon poses to our economy,” Perrone said in a prepared statement. “Make no mistake, creating cashierless stores is not about convenience; rather, it is about greed.”
Perrone charged that Amazon’s business model threatens “millions of American jobs.” His union represents 1.3 million food workers, among them grocery checkers.
Arlan didn’t yet know what effect new shopping methods would have on employees in his stores, he said.
“There are still going to need to be hands there to do lots of other things,” he said. “But will they be up front interacting with customers? Maybe not.”
THE HUMAN CONNECTION
Grocery shoppers can expect to see more new technologies pop up as retailers compete to provide the optimal digital experience and to hang on to their share of the market.
But some shoppers, including Arlan, would just as soon walk the aisles of the store the way they always have.
“Even with the convenience of pick-up, I still would prefer to go to the store,” he said. Online shoppers have to know and plan for what they need and don’t have the option of changing their minds, as often happens inside the store, Arlan said.
Galveston resident Pat Como Pervis, 65, an early morning Kroger shopper, said she prefers going to the store for the exercise and for the social experience of interacting with other shoppers rather than with a scanner or phone and a bar code.
“I think it’s great for people with babies or people with physical limitations, or for people in a rush to get home or people with dogs in the car,” she said. “I appreciate the technology.”
But when technology is used just because it’s available, by people already glued to their phones, it can become one more way to avoid human contact, she said.
“That’s a real problem.”