After nearly a year of testing - plus a few highly publicized practice runs involving reporters from a handful of influential tech media outlets like the New York Times - Amazon will open its small-format Seattle test store, dubbed “Amazon Go” on Monday.
The store will feature cashier-free checkouts, allowing customers who install the “Amazon Go” app to simply pick up an item and walk out with it. The launch was supposed to happen earlier, but was delayed due to bugs, we pointed out late last year.
Details of the shopping experience provided to the mainstream media sound like something wholly different than what consumers are used to...
The Seattle store, known as Amazon Go, relies on cameras and sensors to track what shoppers remove from the shelves, and what they put back. Cash registers and checkout lines become superfluous - customers are billed after leaving the store using credit cards on file.
For grocers, the store’s opening heralds another potential disruption at the hands of the world’s largest online retailer, which bought high-end supermarket chain Whole Foods Market last year for $13.7 billion. Long lines can deter shoppers, so a company that figures out how to eradicate wait times will have an advantage.
Amazon did not discuss if or when it will add more Go locations, and reiterated it has no plans to add the technology to the larger and more complex Whole Foods stores.
The opening date, Jan. 22, could very well be remembered as a milestone in the history of consumerism, as Reuters pointed out. While many assumed Amazon would quickly adapt the Amazon Go format for use at its Whole Foods stores, the company says it presently has no plans to integrate the technology with WFM.
Bloomberg reported back in November that that the Amazon Go team had shifted from hiring the engineers and research scientists needed to perfect the platform to hiring construction managers and marketers necessary to build and promote the stores to consumers - a decision that likely signaled Amazon’s intentions to take the concept nation-wide.
But apparently Jeff Bezos has decided that crushing rival grocery stores is a conquest that could wait until 2019, or perhaps beyond. According to the NYT, there were 3.5 million grocery store jobs in the US, as of 2016.
However, according to NYT, there’s been speculation that Amazon could sell the system to other retailers, much as it sells its cloud computing services to other companies.
But rather than eliminating jobs, Amazon says its technology simply changes the role of employees, who will be assigned to different tasks. Though the impact that Amazon’s other businesses have had on retail and other industries would suggest that this notion is a fiction invented by the company’s communications department.
The Amazon Go prototype opened to Amazon employees on Dec. 5, 2016. At the time, Amazon said it expected members of the public could begin using the store in early 2017.
But, as Reuters pointed out, there have been some unexpected obstacles involving the store’s complex system of sensors and cameras. People familiar with Amazon’s operations said these included correctly identifying shoppers with similar body types.
Children who were brought into the store during the course of testing created mayhem by picking up items and putting them back in the wrong places. Hopefully, Amazon has since optimized its technology to account for this.
One Amazon executive told Reuters that four years of planning went into Amazon Go before the prototype store was even built.
Gianna Puerini, vice president of Amazon Go, said in an interview that the store worked very well throughout the test phase, thanks to four years of prior legwork.
“This technology didn’t exist,” Puerini said, walking through the Seattle store. "It was really advancing the state of the art of computer vision and machine learning."
“If you look at these products, you can see they’re super similar,” she said of two near-identical Starbucks drinks next to each other on a shelf. One had light cream and the other had regular, and Amazon’s technology learned to tell them apart.
The 1800-square-foot (167-square-meter) store is located in an Amazon office building in Seattle. In a brief description of the customer experience, Reuters explained that, to start shopping, customers must scan an Amazon Go smartphone app and pass through a gated turnstile.
In an interview with the Times, Amazon representatives were tight-lipped about how the store’s complex system of cameras and sensors would work, other than to say it involves sophisticated computer vision and machine learning software. The sensors are mostly out of sight, though customers can, in some areas, see clusters of small cameras hanging from the ceiling.
Ready-to-eat lunch items greet shoppers when they enter. Deeper into the store, shoppers can find a small selection of grocery items, including meats and meal kits. An Amazon employee checks IDs in the store’s wine and beer section.
Sleek black cameras monitoring from above and weight sensors in the shelves help Amazon determine exactly what people take.
If someone passes back through the gates with an item, his or her associated account is charged. If a shopper puts an item back on the shelf, Amazon removes it from his or her virtual cart.
Clearly struggling to list off aspects of the shopping experience that would be familiar to customers, Reuters reported that products sold at Amazon Go locations contain price stickers similar to traditional grocery stores. But, judging by the Times’s description, most of the experience will feel completely alien: The paper described passing through the store’s turnstiles as similar to entering the subway.
The experience is more closely akin to shoplifting, the paper noted. But, assuming you have an Amazon, account, actually shoplifting from the store is exceedingly difficult, according to the Times - a testament to the sophistication of its system of sensors.
Also there are no shopping carts or baskets inside Amazon Go. Instead, customers put items directly into the shopping bag they’ll walk out with. Every time customers grab an item off a shelf, Amazon says the product is automatically put into the shopping cart of their online account. If customers put the item back on the shelf, Amazon removes it from their virtual basket.
Once the store opens for business today, expect a rash of customer reviews and - considering mankind’s aptitude for rooting out flaws - complaints. However, one thing is clear: Regardless of the initial reaction, this is a glimpse into the future of the retail industry - a future that will inevitably require the employment of fewer humans.