The first-of-its-kind Amazon Go store opened in Seattle this week after just over a year overcoming glitches in beta mode, when it was only open to Amazon employees. Touted or lamented by many as "the store of the future," Amazon Go has no cashiers or cash registers. You scan a smartphone app to get inside. Amazon's cameras and sensors track you through the store, placing items you take off the shelf in a virtual shopping cart, removing any items you put back on the shelf, and then charging you for whatever you took with you a few minutes after you leave the store. I've been wanting to try shopping this way for the year that it was closed to the public, and the other day I finally got a chance.
Of all the we're-not-in-Kansas-anymore moments that went with that shopping experience, the strangest was when I took a small chocolate bar off the shelf and slipped it into my coat pocket. Partly because I didn't want it to get lost or crushed at the bottom of my large shopping bag filled with other items, partly just because I could. Any place else, I would have been stopped for shoplifting. Here, I was just doing what I was supposed to.
Despite having read quite a bit about the store before I went there, there were still some big surprises. Here are some of them:
1. It's not a job-killer.
Most observers assume the idea of a store with no cashiers is to save money by cutting down on the staff needed to operate the store. That's clearly not the point of Amazon Go. On the day I arrived, there were at least a half dozen Amazon employees (wearing bright orange so you could easily spot them) helping shepherd people into the store, replacing items on shelves, checking IDs for those shoppers headed to the liquor shelves, and mostly answering lots and lots of questions. Then there were chefs preparing food in the spacious kitchen right behind plate glass windows so people could watch them from the street. From what I was told, this is not an increased staffing level just for the opening period. There will always be lots of people working there.
2. It's very small.
At 1,800 square feet, Amazon Go is the size of a convenience store, and that's the whole point--convenience. If you're trying to go grocery shopping, this isn't the place for you, especially since there are no shopping carts. The point of the store, besides being a high-profile proof-of-concept, is speed. If you know exactly what you want you can walk in, grab the item or items, and walk right out again. An Amazon representative who works in the same building told me she often buys lunch there because she can get in and out in less than a minute. If you want to test this yourself, Amazon makes it easy: The Amazon Go app tells you exactly how long each visit to the store lasted.
3. You might still have to wait.
The Amazon Go tagline is: "No lines. No checkout. (No, seriously.)" Well, maybe. But on opening day there were lines stretching around the corner, and on the following evening, when I visited, there was still a short line to get in. Most of the delay, though, had to do with the steps you have to take before you can enter the store. You need to download and install the Amazon Go app (which is separate from the Amazon Shopping app or Amazon Alexa app), log in with your Amazon account, and then designate a form of payment for your shopping trip. Once you've done all this, the app will pop up with a QR code. The store's turnstiles scan the code and open to allow you in.
4. Shoplifting is literally impossible.
No one has to watch you while you shop--after all, the store's many ceiling-mounted cameras (discreetly concealed in black cubes that look like ceiling insulation) are watching you at all times. Even if you were to completely turn off your phone, once you're in, the store can track everything you do. Unless you leap over the turnstile--which would definitely be noticed--you can't get inside without providing a form of payment, so there's no way I can see to steal from the store. I imagine someone will try to test that, and look for corners where it's possible to grab an item out of the cameras' sight. But it sure didn't look like it would be easy.
5. It's not the store of the future, at least not the near future.
Amazon Go's opening was delayed for about a year as Amazon struggled to get the technology just right. That will give you some idea of the difficulty inherent in creating a store like this one and why I don't think others will follow suit in a big hurry.
Lots of grocery stores have embraced self-checkout, where you scan your own items and place them in a bag, but I can't easily imagine a real grocery store investing in Amazon's "Just Walk Out" technology any time soon--the investment in cameras and sensors over a large space would be too huge, and the efficiency gain for a real grocery shopping trip wouldn't warrant it. The perfect place for a store like this is right where it is: a convenient location in a downtown area where lots of busy people need to grab a quick bite before returning to work, or the makings of a quick meal before they head home. Justifying the cost for a small store might not be that easy either, though. So I suspect Amazon won't have many licensees or competitors in this space for a while.
Slate noted last week that the Amazon Go store doesn't accept food stamps or other forms of government grocery assistance. Amazon.com, though, is part of a pilot program to provide accepted items to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participants in some states, and people with an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card can join Amazon Prime for $5.99 a month rather than the usual $12.99 a month. At this time, Amazon says it has no plans to start accepting food stamps or other forms of assistance at Amazon Go, but that it will continue to look for ways to better serve customers.
6. Once you go, you'll probably want to go back.
And not just because they give you a free Amazon Go grocery bag on your way in. The full range of Amazon's deep insight into what its customers buy is on display in the unexpected yet appealing selection of items for sale. This being liberal-heavy Seattle, there was an emphasis on both vegan and paleo options, lots of local products, healthy snacks, but also M&Ms and such for those who want to go that route. There were meal kits to take home and also a variety of staples. But there were also slightly unexpected items, like bottles of Worcestershire sauce and pricey, thinly sliced prosciutto.
I'd gone there to try out the store, not really to shop, but I did wind up with a shopping bag full of disparate items, ranging from Lärabars for my non-sugar-eating husband to cheddar-bacon-chive bagels, which sounded so odd and intense I just had to try them. Now that I have, I kind of wish I could easily go back for more. It's probably a good thing that I live far from downtown.