What's the deal with Marty, the Stop & Shop robot?

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If the tall, googly-eyed robot rolling through grocery stores is "creepy" — a common refrain on social media in Connecticut — what does that make the reporter who spends 35 minutes following the robot around?

It was 5:15 p.m. on Tuesday at the Stop & Shop in Groton, peak time for a weekday, and people were doing double takes as "Marty" — Gumby-like in shape, albeit gray and mounted on a platform rather than legs — rolled by.

"They're going to conquer the world," one kid said. "Just wait."

A man later walked into the store, said, "What the (expletive)?" and continued with his shopping.

Some stopped to read the explanation affixed to Marty's side: "This store is monitored by Marty for your safety. Marty is an autonomous robot that uses image capturing technology to report spills, debris and other potential hazards to store employees to improve your shopping experience."

When Waterford resident Michelle Pillman read this, she burst out laughing. Her husband had asked, "What is that with googly eyes over there?" when they entered the store but she didn't know what he was talking about.

"I think it's really funny," Pillman told The Day. "I don't know if it's really contributing to our safety as posted."

One shopper, clearly familiar with Marty's function, clarified to two other shoppers that the robot looks for spills but doesn't clean them up.

A few minutes later, at 5:36 p.m., a woman's voice came over the intercom announcing, "Cleanup needed in the seafood department." (This reporter was in the seafood department at the time and didn't see any spills. My sustained proximity to Marty led me to the existential question, "What if I'M the mess?")

By 5:50 p.m., Marty had done a lap around the perimeter of the store and was maneuvering through the relatively narrow space between a pallet of plants and an endcap of Tide Pods.

Creepy, cute, helpful or putting union jobs at risk?

Ahold Delhaize USA, the parent company of Stop & Shop, Giant and Martin's, announced in mid-January that nearly 500 robots would be coming to its stores. Locally, in addition to Groton, Stop & Shop stores in Montville, Norwich and Waterford each have a robot. The rollout (no pun intended?) stems from a partnership between Retail Business Services, which is the services company of Ahold Delhaize USA, and Badger Technologies.

"As part of our continued focus on technology transformation, we're pleased to support one of the most significant deployments of robotics innovation in the grocery retail industry," said Paul Scorza, executive vice president and chief information officer for Retail Business Services, in a news release.

In a response to an interview request sent to three Stop & Shop media contacts, a senior manager at a public relations firm replied, "At this time, we are unable to share anything beyond what was included in the press release, but look forward to sharing more in the near future."

Marty was piloted in Pennsylvania. Patrick Maturo, manager of store optimization for Ahold USA, told PennLive in 2017 that Marty can recognize if items are out of stock on the shelf and alert employees, and check the accuracy of prices.

Giant Food Stores President Nicholas Bertram said in a statement he was "thrilled by the customer response in our pilot stores."

If you're someone who believes that all publicity is good publicity, Marty surely is a success, as the robot is a hot water-cooler and social media topic. In southeastern Connecticut at least, customers alternatively find Marty creepy, cute or helpful in preventing injuries that could result from spills.

Jason Frechette, business manager for most of the region's Stop & Shop stores for United Food & Commercial Workers Union Local 919 Connecticut, sighed when asked about employees' thoughts on Marty.

"It's kind of like a running joke right now, because it's kind of like a social cue," he said, referring to customers' reactions to the robot.

But beyond the jokes, he sees something more concerning: potential for such technology to take union jobs away, though Marty is now in the "modest beginning phases."

Maturo told Penn Live that Marty can't do the work that store associates do, so the robot is doing assistant work and work that people aren't doing on a routine basis.

e.moser@theday.com

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