Rick Bruer
PRESIDENTS REPORT


Meeting the challenges of technology.


Technology is transforming the grocery industry, just as it is changing almost everything else in our world. It is up to us as union members to determine whether the outcomes will be positive or negative.

Posing the latest challenge to the status quo, Kroger, owner of Ralphs and Food 4 Less, announced plans to introduce its Scan, Bag, Go technology at 400 stores nationwide in 2018.

The program enables customers to scan items as they shop, using either a handheld scanner provided by the store or a smartphone app.

Initially, purchases will be made at a self-checkout register, but eventually shoppers will be able to skip that step and pay automatically through the app. The technology also can notify customers when they are near items that are on their shopping lists.

With the launch of Scan, Bag, Go, Kroger has entered a race with Walmart and Amazon’s Whole Foods Markets for leadership in technological innovations that could add convenience for shoppers while potentially saving money on labor costs for retailers.

The new program is the latest in Kroger’s ongoing efforts to save shoppers time through technology. The company rolled out its ClickList service in late 2014, allowing customers to order groceries online and pick them up the same day, without having to go in the store. Safeway/Vons is doing the same thing with its Online Shopping service.

Tech firms like Google, Peapod, HelloFresh and Uber are also in the mix, providing “personal shoppers” who bring food from the supermarket to the doorstep. Another company is experimenting with self-driving vans that come to customers’ driveways, where they can select produce and other goods at their leisure.

These changes can be dizzying for observers who look away for even a moment. The big question for union members is how they will affect wages, benefits and working conditions.

The worst outcome would be layoffs and reduced hours for employees. The best outcome would involve educating and training union workers to perform new tasks to improve shoppers’ experiences.

In a promising development, Stater Bros. has partnered with instacart in a service that has union baggers bagging the purchases. Union stockers also stock the items on the shelves and union checkers check them through Stater Bros.’ registers. The company gets to use new technologies to cater to its customers as members continue to work their hours. It keeps everyone working and doesn’t take away any union hours or jobs.

This is an example of embracing change as our union and the company come together to help the company, its customers and its union employees.

As time goes on, we expect customers will become more demanding and discerning as employers raise their standards in competing for customers’ dollars. Meanwhile, unions will have an important role in maintaining and improving a professional, quality-oriented work force that is capable of meeting those higher standards.

Study after study shows shoppers will continue to prefer human interactions, even when other alternatives are more convenient.

No robot delivery service can duplicate the experience of chatting with the produce clerks as they help us select our fruits and vegetables, and no app will replace the checker who lives in our neighborhood and grew up with our kids. There is no replacement for human interaction no matter how advanced the artificial intelligence gets.

The employers learned a lesson about employee-shopper relationships during the supermarket strike and lockouts of 2003-2004, when the large majority of customers refused to cross picket lines walked by people they have grown to like and appreciate over the years.

We can’t stop change, but we can channel it. Innovation can be a positive force in our industry, as long as the needs of working men and women are respected and protected.

Fortunately, UFCW Local 1167 has a strong record of protecting jobs while working with employers to ensure that technology makes our lives better, not worse.

Our success depends on the solidarity and activism of everyone in our union. Get involved with your union and be part of the solution to meet the challenges of the future.

 

Your Voice is POWER

 

Rick Bruer