Although they had already opened an actual book shop in Seattle last year, there has been talk for some time that Amazon were looking to open a line of grocery shops. That talk became a reality on Monday when Amazon released details of its latest venture; Amazon Go.
Exciting and interesting news then. As yet, it is one shop in Seattle that is currently only open to Amazon employees “in beta” prior to a public launch in “early 2017”, according to Amazon. (Clearly then, Amazon still need to work out some kinks before the official opening.) Where Amazon has placed this first shop also speaks volumes – 2131 7th Avenue. Close then to Seattle’s up-and-coming, millennials-centric Belltown neighbourhood, while also being walking distance from Seattle’s tourist attractions, such as Pike Place Market and the Space Needle. Therefore, Amazon knows the audience demographic they want to target, while also acknowledging this kind of shopping experience would be such a novelty as to also be a tourist attraction in itself too. If I was in Seattle, I know I’d certainly be interested enough to check it out.
The Latest Pioneering Move
Amazon’s announcement comes on the back of a number of retail innovations in recent years, as such things as online shopping (of which Amazon continues to be a pioneer) and contactless and mobile payments have changed the way people shop, and this has the potential to be no less innovative.
How It Works (I think!)
What of the technology underpinning this new retail innovation though? It has to be said, not much is known, as Amazon have been very careful not to release too many details, instead trying to dazzle us with buzz words like ‘computer vision’ and ‘sensor fusion’. And by ‘us’, I mean the tech-savvy millienial early-adopters they are clearly targeting and whom fill their teaser advert above. This patent Amazon filed in 2014 outlining a series of cameras linked to central computer processors gives us some clue to how such a shop is possible and chimes with what we see in the video Amazon released on Monday.
Based on the patent and what we see in the video, I guess all of what we see above is made possible by the customer checking in using the Amazon Go app at the turnstile. They are then tracked through the shop using their phone signal and are connected to what they pick up using Near Field Communications chips, both in-store and in the customers’ phones. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Amazon are also scanning the barcodes of the items taken/purchased at the turnstile when the customer then checks out too. If nothing else, they’d need to make sure they are linking the correct customer to the correct items for the venture to be a success.
The Potential Downsides
As this very insightful article in The Verge points out, there are potentially some very worrying consequences for a customer’s privacy and just how much retailers know about us of such a system though. Even as someone who works in tech and finds the increasing number of things technology is now capable of awe-inspiring, I do find this aspect of such innovation slightly unsettling.
Furthermore, I’ve written before on how mobile technology is contributing to the creation of a total convenience culture, and developments like this that add to it. Call me old-school, but I find this move to total convenience a bit troubling. If nothing else, a till-less, ‘Just Walk Out’ shopping experience eliminates the need for human interaction, and that isn’t a good thing in my opinion. Casual social interactions, such as when shopping, help to develop and maintain social skills, keep us in touch with the world around us and can go a long way to unwittingly brightening a person’s day. I, for one, wouldn’t want that to be lost.
If Amazon Go does catch on and more shops begin to pop up across the United States and the world, there will be criticism in some quarters about the lack of job opportunities Amazon is creating given the system doesn’t require cashiers. Moreover, if Amazon’s system caught on, other physical retailers would look to implement a ‘Just Walk Out’ systems in their own shops. While such a system would still require workers to deliver stock and replenish the shelves, it could still potentially lead to job losses among existing staff.
Let’s be honest too; it’s the big retailers – supermarkets and retail chains – that would have the money to be able to research how Amazon’s system works and develop their own. Hence, it wouldn’t simply be the loss of one or two jobs, it could potentially be the loss of thousands of jobs across hundreds of branches, which would surely lead to an outcry from media outlets and workers’ unions.
While Amazon’s announcement is very exciting then, I and others certainly have concerns about the effects on personal privacy such an innovation could have, as well as the negative effects it could have on wider society. Therefore, I applaud Amazon for being able to develop such an innovation and turn it into what seems to be a practical and workable model, but I worry about just how far such technology could be taken.
What do you think? Is Amazon’s latest innovation wonderful and the kind that makes you marvel at technology, or is another step that disconnects us from the people around us? Let us know via our Facebook or LinkedIn pages, or via Twitter @TotalProcessing.