January 21, 2018
Dilip Kumar, Amazon Go vice president of technology, scans the QR code on his Amazon Go app to gain entry to the store. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)
The first Amazon Go grocery and convenience store will open to the public Monday in Seattle — letting any person with an Amazon account, the Amazon Go app and a willingness to give up more of their personal privacy than usual simply grab anything they want and walk out, without going through a checkout line.
Emerging from internal testing a year later than originally expected, Amazon Go is the online retail pioneer’s attempt to reinvent the physical store with the same mindset that brought one-click shopping to the internet. After shoppers check in by scanning their unique QR code, overhead cameras work with weight sensors in the shelves to precisely track which items they pick up and take with them.
When they leave, they just leave. Amazon Go’s systems automatically debit their accounts for the items they take, sending the receipt to the app.
In my first test of Amazon Go this past week, my elapsed time in the store was exactly 23 seconds — from scanning the QR code at the entrance to exiting with my chosen item. Most of that time was spent choosing my preferred flavor of Odwalla juice.
Of course, customers can also linger and fill up a shopping bag, and that’s where Amazon Go gets really interesting, or disturbing, depending on your perspective.
A combination of color cameras and depth cameras in the ceiling track the activity in the Amazon Go store. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)
The company says the tracking is precise enough to distinguish between multiple people standing side-by-side at a shelf, detecting which one picked up a yogurt or cupcake, for example, and which one was merely browsing. The system also knows when people pick up items and put them back, ensuring that Amazon doesn’t dock anyone’s account for milk or chips when they simply wanted to read the label.
The idea is to “push the boundaries of computer vision and machine learning” to create an “effortless experience for customers,” said Dilip Kumar, Amazon Go vice president of technology, after taking GeekWire through the store this past week.
So what does this store say about the future of jobs?
It may be common for a convenience store to be sparsely staffed, but if taken to the scale of a grocery store, it’s easy to see how Amazon Go’s automated approach could translate into less need for retail workers, at least at checkout.
Apart from the kitchen staff preparing fresh food at the back, we saw only two workers in the 1,800-square-foot Amazon Go store during our visit: one at the beer and wine section to check IDs, and another just inside the entrance to greet customers. Workers are also needed to restock shelves and help customers.
Originally announced in December 2016 as a private beta for Amazon employees, the Amazon Go store was initially slated to open to the public in early 2017. But that public opening didn’t happen as expected. The delay came amid reports that the technology was encountering problems when too many people were in the store, and that the system struggled to track some items when they were moved.
However, when asked about those reports, Kumar said the delay wasn’t a result of the technology not working as expected. “Not at all. We’ve been operational from day one, and it has performed flawlessly,” he said.
Skeptical, I pressed him later during our visit. Has the system ever misidentified something that someone has pulled off the shelf? “Very rarely. The system is very, very accurate,” Kumar said, adding that it has been that way since the store started operating. Amazon says it has been developing the Amazon Go concept and its “Just Walk Out” technology for a total of five years now.
Then why the delay in the public opening?
“When we first opened (to employees), we knew that we needed a lot of traffic in order to be able to train the algorithms, to be able to learn from customer feedback, from customer behavior,” he said. “We thought we had to open to the public to get that traffic. But we had a significant amount — well beyond our expectations — of demand from just the Amazon population itself, which allowed us to learn everything that we needed.”
Dilip Kumar, Amazon Go vice president of technology. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)
As evidence of that, we saw a steady stream of Amazon employees walking with orange Amazon Go bags through the company’s Day One building lobby while waiting for our tour of the Amazon Go store this past week.
Because of that demand, Kumar said, there was no need to rush the public debut. “We were able to take our time, learn, and now we’re ready.”
The learning wasn’t just technical. For example, Amazon stopped mixing dressing in with prepared salads for people who were watching their calories. Other feedback included requests for smaller portion sizes in Amazon Meal Kits, and clearer labeling of vegetarian food.
Amazon Go’s merchandising mix includes some non-food items such as batteries (Amazon Basics, of course), Band-Aids, Tylenol, Advil, and cold medicine. But the majority of the store is dedicated to food and beverage items.
That includes one section of Whole Foods 365 brand products. Amazon Go was unveiled before the tech giant’s $13.7 billion acquisition of the upscale grocery chain. Kumar said Amazon has no plans to roll out the Amazon Go technology in Whole Foods stores. He declined to say whether the company plans to open additional standalone Amazon Go locations. (A job posting last year hinted at the possibility of additional Amazon Go stores.)
Amazon Go is part of a broader push by Amazon into physical retail, including its Amazon Books stores and Amazon Fresh Pickup locations, in addition to the company’s massive bet on Whole Foods Market. More than any of those other initiatives, Amazon Go has the feel of a retail store created by a company with roots in e-commerce. Online, of course, it’s status quo to log in and leave virtual footprints as you shop.
But given that this is the physical world, privacy concerns were raised almost as soon as Amazon Go was announced.
Amazon’s experiment is likely to attract people comfortable giving up some privacy to experience something new. But if this is the future of physical retail, what does the company say to people who are uneasy about having their activities in the real world tracked so closely by a computer system?
First of all, Kumar emphasized that the focus of the Amazon Go system is on customer interactions with products at the shelves. Beyond that, he pointed to the sheer convenience of the setup.
“People are rushed. They’re in a hurry,” Kumar said, reciting Amazon’s mantra of starting with the customer and working backward. “People don’t like waiting in lines.” That’s the premise of the store, he said — “to be respectful of your time as a customer.”
The reality is, with loyalty programs and in-store accounts, purchases are already being tracked at many grocery stores, and of course security cameras are already ubiquitous in stores and other public places. But Amazon Go takes that to a new level by tying all of it together.
For now, at least, Amazon isn’t linking Amazon Go with Amazon.com online. For example, if you pull an item off a shelf and replace it because it isn’t quite what you were looking for, Amazon won’t show you an ad for a related product the next time you’re online. Kumar declined to speculate on whether that type of physical-to-online retargeting might be something Amazon does with Amazon Go data in the future.
The Amazon Go app provides a unique QR code for checking into the store. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)
Update, 9 a.m.: The Amazon Go apps for iOS and Android are already out, a day ahead of the opening.
Customers can use their existing Amazon credentials to log in to the Amazon Go app. In addition to providing a QR code to scan at the entrance to the store, the Amazon Go app is where the receipt shows up after customers leave the store carrying their chosen items.
Amazon Go, at 2131 7th Ave. in Seattle, will be open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday. While there will be no checkout lines inside, the concept is novel enough that it wouldn’t be a surprise to see lines of people outside waiting to check it out.