You carefully survey each checkout line, counting the number of people in each, eyeing the number of items in their carts. You choose aisle #3, where only two people are waiting. Everything seems to be going well until…the woman in front of you pulls out a wad of coupons and half of them are expired. You wait in agony as you watch 5 people make it through the aisle next to you. By the time you leave, you have wasted 15 precious minutes (although it feels more like hours) waiting in a line.
Amazon is looking to fix this problem of annoying, inconvenient checkout lines. On January 21, 2018, Amazon Go, a cashierless convenience store in Seattle, was opened to the public. (1) While Amazon is already known for revolutionizing the world of online shopping, the company is now looking to change the way brick-and-mortar stores function as well. Amazon Go gives shoppers the freedom to enter the store, grab their items, and simply walk out.
But how does this shopping paradise work?
For shoppers wanting to visit the store, they must first download the Amazon Go app. Shoppers scan their phone to enter the store, and then they are free to shop and leave with no further lines or waiting. After leaving the store, Amazon will charge their Amazon account and send a receipt. The store is centered around convenience, with only 1,800 square feet of retail space and an offering of ready-to-eat meals and snacks or Amazon Meal Kits for easy home-cooked meals, in addition to certain grocery essentials. (2)
What is truly impressive about the store is the technology making it possible. According to Amazon, the “checkout-free shopping experience is made possible by the same types of technologies used in self-driving cars: computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning. Our Just Walk Out Technology automatically detects when products are taken from or returned to the shelves and keeps track of them in a virtual cart.” (2) The small store has hundreds of cameras watching the movements of each customer in the store. These cameras use “computer vision” to determine when an item is taken off a shelf and by which customer. Computer vision is “the process of allowing machines to ‘see’ what is in front of them and determine what the object is.” It relies on deep learning, which is a form of advanced pattern recognition, allowing a computer to draw a conclusion about a large set of data. This same process is used to determine when an item is returned to the shelf and removed from that customer’s shopping cart. In addition, the store features enough cameras that there is no need for facial recognition software, as each customer is tracked by the cameras at all times. (3)
The company has so much faith in its system that it employs an honor system for refunds. If customers have been charged for something they didn’t buy or simply aren’t happy with the item, they can simply press a “refund” button on the app to have that item removed from the bill. They don’t even have to return the item. (4) When a journalist at CNBC was not charged for a yogurt from the store, Amazon Go VP Gianna Puerini made it clear that Amazon is not worried about errors like these, as they are extremely rare. (5) Despite an honor system like this, the store is likely less susceptible to shoplifting due to the constantly watching cameras.
What’s the catch?
Many people have concerns about Amazon Go and the potential implications of getting rid of checkout lines. Cashiers are the second-most-common job in the U.S., but without a need for checkout lines, this job becomes obsolete. As a result, grocery-store workers’ unions have criticized the store. (1) However, Amazon Go still relies on humans in its day-to-day operations. Employees are responsible for preparing ingredients and food, stocking shelves, and helping customers. (2) Some employees are also on site to help “train the algorithms and confirm when they have correctly identified a product.” (3) So we are not heading for a computer-controlled dystopia just yet!
Many people also have privacy concerns over the store. The idea of being constantly tracked by cameras is definitely unnerving. Despite Amazon avoiding facial recognition and phone tracking, many still worry what Amazon will do with the customer data it collects. For example, some worry that with the data it collects from the store, Amazon can deliver targeted advertisements to its customers. (7)
What comes next?
This Fall, Amazon Go is opening another Seattle location. Then, it is spreading across the nation, with the next stores planned for San Francisco and Chicago, though when has not yet been reported. (6) It is possible that competitors mimicking Amazon Go will likely emerge in future years as well. The company Standard Cognition is planning to outfit over 3,000 Tokyo stores with very similar technology in time for the Tokyo Olympics in July 2020. (8) This competition will likely increase the speed at which this technology spreads, but it is unlikely cashiers and checkout lines will disappear any time soon. Still, it will be interesting to see how this technology continues to spread and develop, and whether or not society will embrace it or fight it.
(1) Day, Matt. “Amazon Go Cashierless Convenience Store Opens to the Public in Seattle.” The Seattle Times, The Seattle Times Company, 22 Jan. 2018, http://www.seattletimes.com/business/amazon/amazon-go-cashierless-convenience-store-opening-to-the-public/.
(2) “Frequently Asked Questions.” Amazon.com, Amazon, http://www.amazon.com/b?ie=UTF8&node=16008589011.
(3) Burgess, Matt. “The Technology behind Amazon’s Surveillance-Heavy Go Store.” WIRED, WIRED UK, 22 Jan. 2018, http://www.wired.co.uk/article/amazon-go-seattle-uk-store-how-does-work.
(4) Soper, Spencer. “Amazon Go Store, with Cameras Instead of Cashiers, Is Opening to the Public.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 22 Jan. 2018, http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-amazon-go-store-20180122-story.html.
(5) Bosa, Deirdre, and Sara Salinas. “We Accidentally Stole a Yogurt from Amazon’s New Grocery Store, but Amazon Told Us to Keep It.” CNBC, CNBC, 23 Jan. 2018, http://www.cnbc.com/2018/01/22/amazon-go-grocery-store-opened-and-we-accidentally-stole-a-yogurt.html.
(6) Weise, Elizabeth. “A New Amazon Go Store Will Open in Seattle. San Francisco and Chicago Are Next.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 5 July 2018, http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/talkingtech/2018/07/03/new-checkout-free-amazon-go-store-open-seattle-fall/755980002/.
(7) Carey, Scott, and Thomas Macaulay. “Yes, Amazon Go Looks Convenient, But At What Cost To Your Privacy?” Techworld, IDG UK, 22 Jan. 2018, http://www.techworld.com/business/amazon-go-looks-amazing-but-at-what-cost-3651434/.
(8) Captain, Sean. “Standard Cognition Is First Amazon Go Rival to Unveil Deal with Stores.” Fast Company, Fast Company, 31 July 2018, http://www.fastcompany.com/90211118/standard-cognition-is-first-amazon-go-rival-to-announce-a-deal-with-stores.