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Where Is Amazon Go-ing With This?

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I was all geared up for this column to be a rant about the dehumanizing effect of automation as exemplified by Amazon’s newest experiment, the Amazon Go store. San Francisco was recently blessed with one of Amazon’s new staffless shopping experiences—or, as the company’s marketing would have it, “the world’s most advanced shopping technology.” My tirade was going to pull in stories I have heard from friends about their love of Uber specifically because of its ability to remove all uncomfortable tipping interactions from their taxi experiences. I’m sure I would have thrown in a Wall-E reference or two for good measure (“Food in a Cup,” anyone?).

And then, well, I Amazon Went. (Yeah, yeah, I know that joke is so spectacularly subpar that the moldiest of dad jokes would turn and sneer at it. I’ve been saving it up since I walked through the door of the Amazon Go store.) My experience in the store wasn’t life-changing, but it did get me thinking about Amazon’s intentions and execution differently.

This swing in perspective happened before I even hit the threshold of the place. Standing outside what looked like a spiffy convenience store stood two Amazon workers greeting every customer. What happened to staffless? The Amazonians offered to describe what I was about to experience. Thus my first aha moment. Once I entered the shop, I scanned the barcode in the Amazon Go app, and then I saw five other Amazon employees wandering the aisles answering questions. Aha, part two. I shopped for five minutes, chose a breakfast sandwich, and walked out. A few minutes later, the app notified me that I had been charged (correctly) for my breakfast.

My initial fear was that Amazon had already extensively trialed this concept and worked out solid ways to remove humans (and their pesky interactions) from the retail flow. But if the concept takes seven people just to explain it to new shoppers, this staffless approach is not as intuitive as I had suspected (and dreaded). In fact, I now think it may be beside the point.

Amazon does not want to talk about the technology that powers Amazon Go. The stores seem to use loads of cameras, some facial recognition technology, and possibly some motion sensors to detect when customers take things off the shelf and then charge their accounts. The packaging on the fresh items has some inscrutable barcodes, but the remaining products have the same standard barcodes you’d find on items in a 7-Eleven.

Whatever the science behind the magic, my experience with Amazon Go seemed more about providing data to Amazon. How long did I stand in front of the burritos? How long did I consider the ingredients in the container of hummus I picked up and examined? Did I walk around the store clockwise or counterclockwise? This data collection is really just an extension of the model that Amazon, Google, and Facebook have undertaken so successfully online. Amazon Go allows Amazon to take this exercise into the real world. So while this data will eventually allow Amazon to create a replicable staffless store (bye-bye to my favorite heavily tattooed Whole Foods cheesemongers?), for now staffers help us provide the data that will eventually replace them.

I live in San Francisco, and so it is not necessarily shocking that a store requires you to have a smartphone and a way to pay for things online. But it should be. As these staffless models expand, will those using public assistance, hard cold cash, or feature phones continue to be shut out?

By the way, the breakfast sandwich I walked out with was unexpectedly darn tasty for a grab-and-go purchase. So can convenience and a nice sandwich outweigh an existential crisis about equal access to the wonders of the future? Something to contemplate for another day.  

Ian Jacobs is a principal analyst at Forrester Research.

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