Just two days after one of Seattle's most storied brick-and-mortar stores closed, an unlikely source (superficially) provided a potential prototype for the city's street shopping future. On Tuesday morning, e-commerce giant Amazon opened the first Amazon Go Grocery at 610 East Pike Street in Capitol Hill. While the store resembles a traditional neighborhood grocer, a customer can check out kitchen essentials sans the standard time-sucking trip to the cashier or self-checkout station. It's essentially an expansion of the company's Amazon Go concept, which allows customers to enter small market spaces via app, grab prepared meals or snack items off the shop’s shelves, and leave without ever having to wait in line.
But the company's new grocery store offers a wider variety of goods—fresh produce, meat, booze—in a much larger space—10,400 square feet—than its antecedent and, in turn, poses a much more challenging test for Amazon’s Just Walk Out technology. Generally speaking, the system relies on customers (who can scan companions in with their Amazon Go app) to take items off the shelves and bag as they go. If they change their minds about buying a box of cereal or bottle of soda, they can simply place them back where they were, removing the cost from their virtual carts on the Amazon Go app. Cameras above and other devices inform this digital receipt. “Our 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,” Amazon’s website says of its Just Walk Out technology. Yet, nabbing a pre-packaged lunch container at the smaller market would seem easier to accurately detect than, say, picking through rows of avocados to find just the right one, a supermarket reality. “You rummage,” Cameron Janes, Amazon’s vice president of physical stores, told The Seattle Times. “So we needed to evolve our technology and improve it to really be able to handle all these new customer behaviors.”
Janes’s title, Orwellian as it is, advertises that brick-and-mortar stores will be a continued focus for Amazon, which has debuted Amazon Books and Amazon 4-star in recent years along with its markets. The company also famously bought Whole Foods in 2017, and a Los Angeles grocery store (with cashiers) is set to debut soon. This line of business is, of course, ironic for a company that has foiled street shops and risen to prominence by touting convenient digital shopping and shipping.
With that history in mind, some will inevitably decry Amazon Go Grocery’s cashierless approach as a complete removal of the human element from grocery stores, an embrace of our robotic future. That would be misguided. For starters, self-checkout stations are already quite popular at other markets. (Count me as a fan of QFC's inspirational self-checkout receipt music.) And Amazon's store isn't humanless. A host of employees will be on-site to restock shelves and serve customers, and local vendors such as La Parisienne, Donut Factory, Tony’s Coffee, Seattle Bagel Bakery, Lopez Island Creamery, Ellenos Yogurt, Uli’s Famous Sausage, Beecher’s, Eat Local, Sri Bella, Carso’s Pasta Company, and Theo Chocolate will feature on the store's shelves.
That isn't to say Amazon's grocery store will feel as inclusive as a traditional market. The easiest way to enter is by having the Amazon Go app, presenting economic and technological barriers to the broader populace. (The store does allow cash payments. Entry associates can scan cash-wielding customers in, who then pay for their items at a check-out counter.) And once you're in, your interaction with other customers will be constrained a bit. The company's app tutorial advises users not to grab items off the shelves for other customers, lest they get billed for the other person's goods. In other words, you can't help a stranger reach the top shelf. But you won't have to wait behind that person in line anymore, either. We’ll have to wait and see if that exchange is worth it.
This story was updated to include additional information about store access and payment.