For Stop & Shop, Marty is more than just an in-store tech solution alerting workers to spills and out-of-stocks. The tall, gray, googly-eyed robot has become an unofficial mascot of sorts and a generator of positive press coverage for the Ahold Delhaize chain.
Karen Mitchell, chief marketing officer and senior vice president with Stop & Shop, shared in a recent Omni Talk Retail virtual event how efforts to humanize Marty and expand its reach into local communities are lowering tech adoption barriers among consumers and workers.
Stop & Shop first started rolling out Marty in 2019 to spot and alert workers to potential floor hazards and spills. Other Ahold Delhaize banners, including Food Lion, The Giant Company, Giant Food and Martin’s, have also tested or deployed the robot manufactured by Badger Technologies whose name is an acronym for “mobile autonomous robot technology.”
Many shoppers have come to know Marty for his large, seemingly cheerful eyes affixed to the top of its frame. Mitchell said the idea came from a worker at a Giant store in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, who ventured to a local arts and crafts store in an effort to give the robot more personality.
“Now nobody can picture him without those eyes anymore,” Mitchell said. “So over time, we've added a smile and made him a little bit happy.”
Almost a year after debuting Marty, Stop & Shop posted on social media that the robot spots on average nearly 40 spills or other potential hazards in each store daily. The post also noted that Marty is from Kentucky, where Badger Technologies is based, and is bilingual in English and Spanish.
“Grocery shopping maybe could be boring or be seen as a chore. Having something that can actually emotionally connect you to that experience ... makes it a more enjoyable experience,” Mitchell said.
Integrating Marty into stores
Stop & Shop has built upon Marty’s capabilities over the years, underscoring the importance of retailers being able to upgrade existing tech solutions.
“Recently, we've actually sent Marty back to college to learn some new skills,” Mitchell said.
Initially focused on spotting aisle hazards, Marty now also detects when items need re-stocking and misplaced items.
However, while Marty has consistently been a hit with kids, not everyone has embraced the autonomous bot. The addition of new technology raises consumer questions about roles and security for existing workers. Since the deployment of Marty, Stop & Shop has said that the robotic fleet is meant to work alongside workers instead of replace them — a point that Mitchell reiterated during the event: “He's not there to take anyone's jobs.”
Some workers and customers have been suspicious of Marty seemingly following them around stores. Some wonder if the robot has video recording capabilities. (It doesn’t, Mitchell said.)
“Not everybody loves him today either. People still roll their eyes or whatever from time to time, but he really is becoming more and more of a staple for Stop & Shop and a trusted part of our community and I think now's the time to really start to leverage him,” she said.
Giving Marty the googly eyes has made it easier for customers and employees to accept the autonomous robot solution. But the addition of the eyes alone wasn’t enough to win over some people.
“We realized that it was important for us to do a little bit of education [about] what he's doing there and what he's not doing,” Mitchell said.
So the grocery banner threw Marty a 1-year-anniversary “birthday party” at all of its stores complete with birthday cakes and balloons along with material about how the robots monitor the floor and keep the shopping experience safe.
“We had people bringing in handmade cards from kids, and one person brought in a can of WD-40 for Marty,” Mitchell said. “The community really embraced it. It was a lot of fun.” As a bonus, Stop & Shop received some positive press coverage about the birthday party, including a New York Times story.
Building Marty’s fan base
Over the years, Marty has become recognizable in local communities, and Stop & Shop has built the robot’s celebrity by linking him to the grocer’s community work, Mitchell said.
Along with his in-store work, Marty has a schedule of various public appearances, such as surprising kids and even going to Fenway Park, where he donned a team shirt and rolled out onto the field to honor Hunger Action Month with the Boston Red Sox.
One year, for Stop & Shop’s annual childhood cancer campaign, the chain ferried Marty via delivery truck for a surprise visit to meet a 6-year-old boy with kidney cancer in Massachusetts who “loves robots and loved Marty,” Mitchell said.
“We had him hugging the robot and getting to interact with him, which was really, really nice,” Mitchell said.
Last week, Marty traveled to the National Retail Federation’s conference in New York City for Stop & Shop and Badger Technologies’ “Selfies with Marty” promotion to help fight school hunger. For each selfie posted to social media with the hashtag #MartyTheRobot, Badger Technologies donated 10 meals in support of 47 New York City partner schools participating in the Stop & Shop Food Pantry Program.
These appearances are “really bringing the brand into the community in a totally new way that we're not seeing anybody else” doing, Mitchell said.
Anne Mezzenage, co-CEO of Omni Talk, suggested Marty get his own vehicle — or “Marty Mobile” — for his public appearances, an idea Mitchell said she’d write down.
In a further testament to Marty’s fan base and positive PR for Stop & Shop, Mitchell said that kids have dressed up as Marty for Halloween. There’s even Marty merch at Ahold Delhaize stores, including stuffed plushies and lollipops. Stop & Shop is already out-of-stock of the Marty merch it launched earlier this year, Mitchell said.
No doubt Marty is probably letting workers know it’s time to restock.