Letters: Robots, Race And Retail

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NPR's Neal Conan reads from listener comments on past Talk of the Nation shows, including the emergence of robots across the country, the racial history of Sanford, Florida, and the new balance of power in retail.


We didn't get to our letter segment yesterday, so it's Wednesday and time to read from your comments.

Our conversation about how smartphones and online shopping shift the balance of power in retail brought this comment from John Mosconi(ph) in Northeast Ohio: I'm a luthier, he wrote, and the stores that I repair for are all independent guitar shops which had been affected by the online and big box-discount mentality in a negative way. The average buyer thinks there are huge mark ups and doesn't realize just how small the margins are. It's difficult to sell a new guitar or base without a 30 percent off discount, which provides a minimal profit since the manufacturer retail mark up is 50 percent. And it's not unusual for people to dicker on the price or want it sales tax free. It makes it difficult for even long-established stores to survive.

The author Isabel Wilkerson joined us to talk about the racial history of Sanford and north Central Florida. Linda Borel(ph) emailed us from Berkeley, California: I lived in Sanford from 1950 to 1952. It was a country town and known as the celery heart of the universe. It was also very segregated. I remember that when we went to the movies, the African-Americans had a separate ticket window located in the lobby of the ladies' room, opening onto an alley. They had to sit in the balcony, much to the dismay of my brother and me because we wanted to sit in the balcony, but whites weren't allowed. Seeing the separate facilities for white ladies and colored women and the separate drinking fountains, as well as attending segregated schools left an imprint on my mind that hasn't gone away. My brother and I didn't understand the system then, and we were among the privileged whites.

And finally, we asked you to tell us where you've been surprised to meet a robot. Tommy Bach(ph) in Bridgeton, Missouri, told us: I work for Fastenal Company, a global leader in industrial sales and services. And over the past few years, we'd implemented several Internet-based vending machines for our customers. Basically, we custom-build a machine to vend such items as safety glasses, batteries, abrasives and anything else that may have a high-turn rate. We synch the machine to security badges or employee ID numbers, and operations managers are able to track usage by item, by employee, by date in real time in order to track trends and, ultimately, cut waste. We've seen 20 to 30 percent usage reduction in almost all of our customers by using these simple robots to track items in detailed ways that parts managers don't have time to do.

As always, if you have corrections or comments or a question for us, the best way to reach us is by email. The address is talk@npr.org. Please, let us know where you're writing from and give us some help on how to pronounce your name. If you're on Twitter, you can follow us there, @totn.

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