It’s Hard Work to Make Ordering Groceries Online So Easy

AWM, in Aliso Viejo, Calif., offers retailers sophisticated overhead cameras that are able to track employees and customers as they walk around stores and recognize products, even down to Red Delicious versus Gala apples. Kevin Howard, its chief executive, said that the company could cut stores’ fulfillment costs by 60 percent through methods like flagging out-of-stock wares right away and directing pickers to the right items even if they were moved or misplaced.

“We dictate each aisle they should be going to because we know what product is in what aisle, then we dictate in real time, visually, the actual gondola, the shelf and the zone on the shelf of where that product lives,” Mr. Howard said.

AWM also helps retailers track “exactly who’s productive and who’s not,” Mr. Howard said. “If they went down the confection aisle and it took 12 minutes and the average picker takes four, how do we ensure we help them get to the four number? Sometimes it’s not knowing what the product is — with us, it’s usually personal time on their cellphones.”

The monitoring attached to grocery picking concerns some labor experts.

“Any of these systems saying ‘pick this now, pick this next,’ is by default tracking you,” Mr. Tilly said. “They all have clocks associated with them, and so it’s tracking you, monitoring your pace. It means if there turns out to be an error with the order, they know who did it.”

Even if the technology weren’t designed primarily for surveillance, “it’s not hard to then be tempted towards monitoring and using it for disciplining purposes,” said Françoise Carré, research director of the Center for Social Policy at the University of Massachusetts-Boston McCormack Graduate School, who has also studied how technology is changing retail jobs.

Noell Marion, an employee at Mariano’s, another Kroger-owned grocery chain, first started working at the Skokie, Ill., store through Instacart in 2019. Ms. Marion, 53, said that as a designated “veteran shopper,” she had 72 seconds for each item.

“That includes walking the store, getting the item, getting it scanned, getting through checkout and getting it staged and ready for delivery,” she said, adding, “It never took into consideration if you had to stand in line for something if the store was busy.”

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