Amazon Go, Amazon’s new brick-and-mortar retail initiative, caused a media frenzy when its first location had a soft opening for Amazon employees in 2016. The store offered a revolutionary take on the classic corner store: no lines, no cashiers, no cash registers. Just go in, pick what you’d like, and walk out.
The idea sounded crazy to many (including myself) at first. How could this possibly work? It seemed like a godsend for thieves. However, if any company could pull off something as ambitious as a cashier-less retail store, it would be Amazon.
Here we are a little over one year after the first store was opened to the general public and Amazon has already opened nine more. Amazon Go locations are now fully operational in Seattle, San Fransisco, and Chicago, offering Amazon account holders access to a wide array of on-the-go options.
The Amazon Go Experience
Before going to an Amazon Go store, shoppers must download the Amazon Go mobile application, which is available on both iOS and Android devices. This application will prompt users to first either log into their preexisting Amazon accounts or create a new account with basic information and a payment method.
Once your account is logged in, you use the unique QR code to scan in and gain access into the store. If you are traveling with family members or friends, you can also scan them into the store using your account. Once scanned, you have free-range of the store. Everything you pick up and put in your bag will be automatically added to your virtual cart. If you have second thoughts and put an item back on the shelf, it will be removed from your cart. When you finish shopping, simply walk out the door and a digital receipt will be sent to you shortly.
The Technology Behind It
These Amazon Go stores are equipped with a high-tech network of sensors and cameras that track each customer throughout their shopping experience. The shelves are equipped with weight-sensors and cameras that work together to identify when an item has been removed from the shelf and uses artificial intelligence to comb through this data about the item’s physical weight and visual appearance to infer which item has been removed. Over time, machine learning will allow the artificial intelligence to evaluate lots of data both from the individual’s and other customers’ past transactions to make very quick, accurate analyses of data.
A series of Bluetooth beacons tracks customers throughout the store, updating their virtual cart and relaying the information gathered by the artificial intelligence to the user’s mobile device.
Pros of Amazon Go
Like much of what Amazon does, this will improve the shopping experience for customers. Fewer lines mean less time wasted waiting for a free cashier during peak hours (pre-work, lunch, and evening). According to the New York Times, Americans spend roughly 37 Billion hours each year waiting in line. Saving even a fraction of this time could improve both happiness and productivity for Amazon Go shoppers. On top of time savings, there could be cost savings due to the fact that the stores require fewer labor costs (cashiers, baggers, etc.), and this could theoretically be passed onto the consumer.
In addition, since everything is paid for using your Amazon account, not having to carry around physical cash or credit cards could lessen the risk of misplacing or having these valuables stolen from you.
Cons of Amazon Go
The data security risks with this type of technological infrastructure cannot be ignored. The use of Bluetooth communication between devices in this store could potentially open up devices to potential hackers, as shown by Tech Crunch in 2017. If the data involved in these transactions and in shoppers’ Amazon accounts were to be breached by bad actors, it would not be good for any party involved.
Many will fault this new operating model for retail stores as a “job killer” because it eliminates the need for the low-skilled job of cashiers and baggers. However, with this job loss, there are many other jobs created in food preparation, inventory stocking, inventory management, and information technology.
This application of QR code scanning technology (which really is nothing new) linking to a unique user profile could be used in many different applications outside of the retail space. Think: basically anywhere you have a line. With a bit of tweaking and customization, this same concept could be applied to doctor’s office waiting rooms, airports, banks, salons, and gymnasiums to name a few. This technology could eliminate customer friction and bottle-necking in many industries.
The sensor, AI, and machine learning technology were created outside of the retail space and most applications for it are also outside of this industry. It would take ages to detail each and every potential application from self-driving cars to robots in this blog post so I will spare you the time. The point is that this type of innovation by Amazon could potentially disrupt many different industries outside of retail. Hopefully, we can experience this technology first-hand during our visit to San Fransisco in a few weeks.