Have you ever shoplifted?
I haven’t, nor would I ever, because I’m an unabashed goody two-shoes, but that’s exactly what visiting an Amazon Go store feels like. (Well, what I imagine shoplifting would feel like.) For some, it might be a rush. For me, it was more anxiety-inducing than anything else.
Amazon Go Stores in 2018
Many retail tech experts are touting the cashierless, walk-out-with-your-items-and-be-charged-later model as the future of retail technology. Given that Amazon recently acquired Whole Foods, there is much speculation that the company’s goal is to make Whole Foods cashierless in the future. The rollout of six Amazon Go stores spread out among Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago is clearly a test to see how people respond to the model and whether it’s scalable.
Visiting an Amazon Go Store
As someone lucky enough to work a few blocks from one of the new stores recently opened in Chicago, I decided to give it a try.
Downloading the Amazon Go App
The first step is downloading the Amazon Go app. Without it, one cannot even enter the store. The app is how Amazon assigns your product selections and charges your account. If you already have an Amazon account, you simply need to sign in when you open the app. You then get a handy tutorial on how the store works:
It sounds easy. In and out, no muss, no fuss. You can even bring a friend, and anything they pick up will also be added to your cart. (I brought two curious coworkers along, and we all downloaded the app.)
If you’ve ever used your phone as a boarding pass, entering the store is just as easy. We arrived around 1:30 p.m., so past the lunch rush, but the store still had a good number of people in it. The cameras that are meant to track what customers pick up off the shelves are unobtrusive, but you can notice them lining the back of the coolers along the walls. Sensors in the ceilings also track the shelves.
In many ways, the store looks exactly like any convenience store, albeit with better-organized shelves; this is likely out of necessity, as the shelves should be kept in order so the sensors and cameras accurately track what customers pick up. You can see the aggressively organized candy rack below. Despite the size of the store, it’s likely that it holds much fewer items than stores of a similar size as a result of the shelving requirements.
One thing that caught my eye was the meal kits. Similar to a Blue Apron kit, these meal kits could be prepared in about 30 minutes and are designed to feed two people. This seemed like a direct line to the recent Whole Foods acquisition, and I can’t argue with the logic behind it.
The kind of person who is too busy for cashier lines is likely too busy to plan and cook a meal from scratch. The prices didn’t strike me as entirely unreasonable, and the beef bibimbap sounded pretty good to me. I was mostly struck because a meal kit is an option I’ve never seen in a convenience store (aside from the occasional Lunchable).
My coworkers and I spent several minutes in the store simply walking around, taking it all in. Eventually we all hovered by the drinks, picking things up and checking our apps to see if the store added them to a cart or seemed to notice in any way. The unsettling thing is that nothing happened.
After a few minutes of searching the menus of our apps trying to find the virtual cart mentioned in the tutorial, we gave up and decided to try leaving the store. Walking out was similarly uneventful. I unintentionally tried to make eye contact with one of the employees for some kind of tacit approval that we were doing the right thing, but they were understandably busy and uninterested.
Initial Thoughts on Amazon's Futuristic Store Experience
As we made our way back to the office, we waited for some kind of notification that our transactions had gone through. Immediately after walking out of the store there was no indication we had left, and that continued as we walked the few blocks back. It was disconcerting to say the least, and made me anxious that the sensors hadn’t, in fact, worked, and we had absconded with our drinks without paying.
Once we got back to office Wi-Fi our receipts trickled in. I have to say, I was impressed. That was, in fact, the item I had picked up. The experience was a little spooky, but overall painless. My coworkers’ transactions were similarly smooth.
However, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of data I was sacrificing to Amazon in order to complete this transaction. At my desk, I checked my Amazon account on my computer for any record of my Amazon Go trip, but the app seems pretty self-contained. Undoubtedly, my choice of a Naked Juice says more about me to Amazon than I can fathom right now.
I mentioned my experiment to my roommate later and he was disconcerted by the concept. Too much data, not enough security was his concern. Phones are vulnerable, and Amazon isn’t unhackable. While I felt secure in the fact that I had to use my Amazon password to access the app and don’t intend to make visiting the store a habit (I’ll likely delete the app from my phone in the not-too-distant future), I understand where he’s coming from.
Mobile Payments Around the World
In places like Europe and China, paying for things via mobile phones has become commonplace. Whether that’s through scanned QR codes or touch-to-pay depends on the country in question. In many ways, the U.S. is lagging far behind the rest of the world when it comes to everyday transactions. We only just implemented EMV chips in credit and debit cards when some countries have been using them since 2005.
The glaring issue, however, is labor. What will happen to cashiers and other jobs if stores become automated? The Amazon Go store had employees stocking shelves and available for questions, but that doesn’t necessarily replace the jobs of cashiers. It’s a hard question that many people have asked in relation to Amazon Go’s model, and there are, as of yet, no satisfying answers. Some will argue that the disappearance of these jobs is the price of progress, and that new jobs will be created in their stead. Some fear the disappearance of unskilled (but not unnecessary or unworthy) jobs for good.
I find it unlikely that cashiers will disappear entirely, but we may see fewer of them in stores that carry daily necessities. I imagine boutiques and stores that provide a more specialized or high-end service will maintain a more traditional shopping experience. After all, cashiers didn’t disappear once self-checkout became an option in grocery and drug stores. Sometimes they’re the only ones who can wrangle the self-checkout machines.
One must also consider the implication of the requirement to own a smartphone to even enter the store. For those who don’t necessarily have access to a smartphone, they will be entirely barred from the store. Unfortunately, the price of progress typically falls on those who are disadvantaged.
All in all, the Amazon Go experience is an interesting one, and I can see the appeal. Time will tell how accurate the system really is given high volumes of people and items being purchased. But the time-saving and labor-saving appeal cannot be ignored. Imagine bagging your groceries as you take them off the shelves and simply walking to your car without dealing with the hassle of unloading and reloading your cart at checkout. Store owners are certainly imaging a world where employees can spend more time walking around a store upselling customers rather than simply checking them out.
Amazon Go, Mobile Payments, and Moving Forward
However one must look beyond the labor implications to the technological implications. Making phones a primary payment method for certain stores will require an overhaul of mobile security. Blockchain may become a part of our day-to-day lives as we attempt to keep our mobile transactions secure. There are also potentially huge IoT implications as stores themselves become “smart.” How does one protect against shoplifting? Will the technology move more towards facial recognition to avoid the phone issue entirely? Will store displays become more interactive?
The move towards omnichannel retail may give us a hint at things to come. In a world where you can order something online and pick it up in a store, only to return it online, the cashierless store model seems like a logical evolution. How convenient would it be to make a shopping list online and then be directed directly to your items in the store via GPS? Or if you could simply click on a coupon in an email and have it directly applied to your store account for the next time you visit? The possibilities are endless, and Amazon Go is simply the first step.
Learn more about the future of retail in our guide to omnichannel marketing in 2018.