Last month I walked into a lunch food store, helped myself to a meal and a beer, and then walked out without paying. The store was no ordinary shop: it’s potentially the future of shopping. Called Amazon Go, it is run by the American e-commerce giant and is situated opposite its iconic domes at its downtown Seattle headquarters.
To get into the store you download the Amazon Go app which displays a QR code that you scan on a transit-like turnstile as you walk in. Around the roof and above the shelves of products are an array of sensors and cameras which monitor what you put into the bright orange bag (which you’re given as you enter).
Only the products you put in the bag are eventually billed to you, which it did automatically a few minutes after I left.
Looking through the salads, sandwiches and microwave meals in the refrigerated section, I picked up a number of items and put them back on the shelf. I wasn’t mistaken billed for anything. Amazon calls this – without any sense that they are joking – “Just Walk Out Technology”. Despite the funny name, it appears to work as advertised.
Amazon says its “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”.
The downtown store offers a range of basic groceries, a liquor aisle (that a shop assistant asks to see proof of your age) which includes house wine sold in cold drink-sized cans; which itself could be the innovation of the year, according to the people I’ve told about it.
It also offers a new food trend that is big in the States, and starting to appear in South Africa: meal kits with all the ingredients to make your own dinner.
On the day I went, I had to download the app – for which Amazon offers free WiFi – before you’re allowed in. Accept some Ts&Cs and link the app to your Amazon account, and off you go.
When Amazon Go opened last month, internet memes gleefully celebrated that the store designed to do away with (paying) queues had a queue down the block to get into it and inspect this new cultural oddity.
For a store that eschews the traditional trappings like cashiers, and therefore queues, it does appear to employ a lot of people. There were two people outside in bright orange jackets (it was still pretty cold in February) helping you download the app and giving you bags while several staff inside were packing shelves and seemingly help the flow of customers.
There is a lot of excitement that this Go store is the future of retail – and it certainly fits in the tech-savvy middle-class environment it is located. For office workers or curious tourists, it’s a quick and easy option for lunch; including a quick visit to Amazon’s remarkable biodome Spheres – the five-storey glass domes housing some 40,000 plants in the middle of Amazon’s $4bn headquarter campus.
Amazon is renowned for pushing the boundaries of retail, first in e-commerce and now in the real world. This may well be the future of buying shopping, and certainly lunch.
This column first appeared in Financial Mail