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Tracking the Conversation Around Amazon Go

Manny Veiga

Manny Veiga

After a year of delays, Amazon finally opened its cashless and cashier-less convenience store to the public last Monday, and the initial reactions have ranged from curiosity to bemusement, to confusion and just about everything in between.

Amazon Go is a simple concept: shoppers first enter the store through turnstiles, scanning their phone on a screen so that purchases are linked to their Amazon account. From there, sensors and cameras located on the store’s ceilings and shelves track shoppers’ purchases as they pick items off the shelf. If they change their minds and put an item back, the app removes it from their virtual cart. At the end of the trip, shoppers merely walk out the front door with their purchases – no need to check out anywhere or speak to anyone. The order is simply charged to their Amazon account.

Ironically, the store that’s meant to eliminate lines opened to a massive one.

So far, the only Go store is in Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, where employees have already been shopping for a year. The company hasn’t said whether it plans to open more stores in the future, or if it will implement the tech in its Whole Foods locations, but that almost seems inevitable, doesn’t it?

Naturally, the story made a big buzz in business, tech and consumer media. The reviews of the actual in-store experience were mostly positive – it seems Amazon has worked out most of the kinks to deliver a frictionless shopping experience, as promised.

There was at least one minor hiccup: CNBC reporter Dierdre Bosa tweeted that she accidentally shoplifted an item that the store’s cameras evidently failed to pick up.

No hard feelings from Amazon, which said Bosa could keep the yogurt on the house. Interestingly, Amazon VP Gianna Puerin admits the company hasn’t even built a functionality for customers to report these types of errors, because they’ve occurred so rarely during their tests.

You have to wonder if that low error rate will hold up as the store scales even in its single location. Will the cameras really track every single purchase with 100% accuracy during even the busiest shopping hours? Amazon hasn’t explained the nuts and bolts behind its machine vision technology, so we’ll have to wait and see.

It will also be interesting to gauge initial consumer reaction. Several reporters, including The Sun UK’s James Beal, said that at first, they couldn’t help but feel like they were shoplifting. It just feels weird to leave a store without handing over cash or swiping a card, but New York Times reporter Nick Wingfield says you’ll feel better once you receive an email receipt confirming that you are, in fact, not a thief.

Writing for the Washington Post, writer Rebekah Denn described “Orwellian angst” on her first trip through the store, although her 15-year-old son didn’t share her concerns: “It’s not as creepy as Alexa,” he argued. Still, will shoppers feel comfortable with hundreds of cameras tracking their every movement in store, even as Amazon insists they won’t use facial recognition technology to monitor purchases?

Still, the concept does come with larger moral concerns. Shopping at an Amazon Go would move consumers even further away from the “pain of paying”, marketing professor Manoi Thomas told the Chicago Tribune. Research shows that cashless payments encourage impulse purchases, meaning Amazon Go could result in shoppers spending more money, especially on unhealthy foods.

Restricting purchases to people who own a smartphone and have a credit card also cuts out an entire portion of the population. And, of course, a cashier-less convenience store puts Amazon back in the conversation around technology stealing human jobs – there are 3.5 million cashiers in the U.S. making an average of $9.70. Amazon counters that its stores won’t employ fewer people, but rather re-focus those roles toward other in-store activities, like food prep and stocking.

Clearly there are still some things to be worked out, but the buzz around Amazon Go has been mostly positive, with some optimism for the future of physical retail mixed in. Amazon’s learnings from this pilot store will also influence how this type of shopping experience develops in the future.