Amazon’s latest foray into brick-and-mortar retail is a convenience store in downtown Seattle called Amazon Go, where shoppers walk in and walk out without ever waiting in line at a register or interacting with a cashier, reports the Los Angeles Times:
The Amazon Go store is open to Amazon employees participating in a testing program. It is expected to be open to the public in early 2017. Amazon says that what makes the store tick is a combination of computer vision, sensors and machine learning that it calls “Just Walk Out technology.”
It can tell, say, when a particular shopper picks up a carton of milk from a physical shelf; the technology puts the milk in that shopper’s virtual cart. It can also tell when an item is put back on the shelf — and removes it from the virtual cart accordingly. Shoppers walking into the store would call up the Amazon Go app and hold their smartphone to a scanner as they would at an airport. Then they would pick up any combination of products and just walk out. Amazon would charge them after they leave the store.
When the person exits the store, the system triggers an email or another type of electronic message that is sent to the shopper indicating the items sold and the purchase price. Another section of the application talks about how the system could associate a rental price or “borrow time” with the shopper when he exits a rental location or library with an item. This section seems noteworthy when you consider that Amazon is now helping to operate some stores on college campuses, where students can pick up online orders a day after they are placed.
Some of the explanations for how Amazon would be able to connect a product with a specific shopper could stoke some privacy concerns if the company actually creates such a tracking system for a retail store. The application describes the use of cameras that would snap photos to show, for example, when a person entered the facility, when she removed something from a shelf and when she left with an item in her hand.
Amazon Go builds on a trend of customer tracking that retail technology companies have been working on for a while, but takes it to a whole new level, Davey Alba observes at Wired:
What previous efforts don’t do that Amazon Go does, though, is link products to individuals, says Brent Franson, CEO of Euclid Analytics, which gives stores the ability to track customers using their mobile Wi-Fi address, which helps smartphones interact with real-world items. (Other companies deploy tools like video analytics and beacons.) “Solving the problem of attaching the products to the person as they leave the store is going to require something new—or something we’re not aware of today,” Franson says. “Tying the two together at 100 percent accuracy, that’s a problem that’s hard to solve.” If Amazon is anything short of 100 percent accurate, Franson points out, that means someone essentially gets to steal from them, or Amazon mistakenly charges a customer for something she didn’t buy. Both scenarios are unacceptable.
Complicating matters further is that the act of shopping is tricky, says Arun Nair, Chief Technology Officer and co-founder of RetailNext. Grocery shoppers often put things back in the wrong aisle. Certain food, like vegetables, are priced by weight. Families and other groups need to have one consolidated virtual cart, rather than being charged individually based on the smartphone in their pocket. Amazon may be uniquely situated to solve these problems, though.
Indeed, Jordan Pearson adds at Motherboard, while Amazon Go may portend the death of the retail cashier job, cutting labor costs isn’t the main objective here; rather, Amazon is looking to collect a more complete set of data about its customers’ shopping habits:
Anybody can get rid of a cashier with a robot. That’s easy, and in fact, a lot of places have already done it with self-service checkout machines. But what only Amazon can do, and what it is seeking to do with Amazon Go stores, is design a hyper-efficient and data-driven information loop built around physical and online shopping. This will likely benefit Amazon’s business for all of the reasons that customer data does now: improving its marketing, recommendations and promotions, and keeping its supply chain in line. All of this comes down to knowing you.
Still, such a dramatic disruption could certainly have big implications for the retail labor market. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents grocery workers, issued a statement criticizing Amazon for “destroying good jobs,” but Amazon insists there is plenty of work for humans to do in a cashier-free grocery store, Ángel González reports at the Seattle Times:
Cashiers are the second-largest occupation in America, to the tune of 3.5 million jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In a statement, Amazon said: “Getting rid of checkout lines is great for customers, and our associates are great for customers, too.”
The company said there’s plenty of stuff for people to do at an Amazon Go store. Store employees will work both the kitchen and the store, preparing food, greeting and helping customers and stocking shelves. “When the store is open to the public, customers will see a great group of store associates on the floor and in the kitchen.”