Last week saw the public unveiling of Amazon’s latest venture into retail technology: Amazon Go. The 1800 square foot store at the base of Amazon’s skyscraper in Seattle has been in development since 2016. After 14 months of trialling the store with Amazon employees, it is finally open to Amazon customers. Ironically, on opening day there was a massive queue to get into the store, which was conceived to prevent customers waiting in lines.
Now that the buzz has settled down a bit, the store seems to be serving its purpose. Amazon customers can dash in to grab some food and leave just as quickly. They waste no time standing around in checkout queues or even paying. So, how does this work? Let’s take a written tour of Amazon Go.
Inside Amazon Go
First of all, to shop at Amazon Go, you must be an existing Amazon customer. You also need to have a smartphone with the Amazon Go app downloaded on it. The app will give you a unique QR code, which is how the store will recognize you. Six turnstiles guard the entrance, much like ticket barriers at train stations. You have to scan your code in the app to pass through to the store. Once inside, all you have to do is shop.
The store itself is basically a mini-market, with limited stock. It seems like a typical convenience store in terms of product range. Mostly groceries, ready-to-eat meals, and some toiletries. The store mostly provides snacks, salads, and sandwiches for lunches. As you browse, sensors will know if you pick something up then put it back. Without checkouts, you don’t need a basket. You can put your items directly into a bag, or even your pockets.
How Does It Work?
If you looked up, you would see a ceiling covered in rectangular black blocks. These are the cameras which combine with analytical technological systems to track what everyone is buying. When you walk out of the store, it registers you leaving and notes everything you took. Within ten minutes, a digital receipt will arrive, and Amazon will charge your shopping to the card registered on your Amazon account. Shoplifting would be difficult to pull off with this advanced technology.
That said, with the Amazon Go app, customers have the ability to remove items from their receipts. If Amazon charges you for something you didn’t take, you can swipe to get a refund. Since this requires no proof and there is no returns system, what’s to stop people claiming a refund for things they actually did buy? Obviously, it will be easy to catch repeat offenders. But the new “Just Walk Out” technology clearly isn’t flaw-free.
What About Human Employees?
The introduction of Amazon Go has sparked debates about the automation of the retail industry. Self-checkouts have been around for a while now, and the use of robots in warehouses is developing. It’s understandable that cashiers and other store staff would worry about keeping their jobs. It seems impossible to consider a store without human staff to assist the customers, though. Even Amazon Go has human employees checking IDs in the alcohol section, handing out bags, or answering questions for shoppers.
The minimisation of human labour doesn’t always equal saving money. The technology needed to run a store like Amazon Go costs millions. To open multiple branches of these stores would be beyond the means of most chain retailers. This means it’s not very likely that we will see them popping up everywhere in the near future. In the UK at least, Amazon is still investing in a human workforce. A new distribution centre in the Midlands will create 400 jobs with benefits packages. As well as warehouse staff, the new site will require engineers and specialists in HR and IT.