The futuristic grab-and-go market represents a test of new technology that could soon spread nationwide, as Amazon and other grocery giants seek to win business from shoppers craving selection, ease and speed.
“The number one problem for people is time poverty,” said Dilip Kumar, vice president of technology for Amazon Go, while standing in the store during its grand public opening. “People want good food fast, and they want it to be convenient.”
The store relies on a vast and sophisticated data-gathering operation to transform the shopping experience, and privacy experts worry that Americans may not fully understand what they’re giving away in every aisle.
“It’s not just the transaction,” said Danielle Citron, a law professor and privacy expert at the University of Maryland’s law school. “Powerful companies like Amazon don’t just have what you bought at the grocery store, but they’re also connected with and combined with nearly every aspect of your life,” including where people live and what they buy, read and watch.
Shoppers walking into the store scan their phone on a subway-station-like turnstile, connecting their presence in the store (as well as their family members or other fellow shoppers) with their Amazon profile. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)
The boxy, black cameras in the ceilings don’t have the look of classic surveillance cameras — a benefit, some said, given that hundreds of them blanket the 1,800-square-foot space — but they operate in a similar way, tracking shoppers’ movement and what items they pick up or put back down.
The store’s cameras include infrared sensors, but the company says it does not employ facial recognition. Some items have large, camera-friendly codes to help the cameras understand which items have been grabbed; the computers combine that information with data from weight sensors installed in every shelf.
When shoppers are done, they simply walk back out through the porcelain-white turnstiles — and their phone updates with a receipt, along with a “trip timer” telling them how many seconds they spent on the shopping trip. The process was so breezy that first-day shoppers like Harriet McClain said it felt “like shoplifting.”
“Even in a small town, people shoplift,” McClain said, before motioning toward the overhead cameras. “But a local grocery store could never afford to put in this kind of stuff.”
Amazon has not shared details on the methods involved in its “Just Walk Out” technology, but says it mimics some of the techniques seen in self-driving cars, including machine-learning systems that improve over time, as well as computer vision, the image-processing technology used in Facebook photo tags.
“The majority of sensing is from above,” said Kumar, the Amazon Go executive. “Cameras figure out which interactions you have with the shelves. Computer vision figures out which items are taken. Machine-learning algorithms also determine which item it is.”
John Verdi, the vice president of policy at the Future of Privacy Forum, a think tank that counts Amazon among its corporate donors, said the data collected by Amazon’s store is no more than what most people give away at other supermarkets by using their loyalty and credit cards.
“Are consumers comfortable with that level of data collection and use? I suspect many are,” he said.
Alvaro Bedoya, the executive director of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown University’s law school, said “it’s highly likely” that Amazon Go collects “more information than any retail setting out there now.”
“When you shop with a discount card, you know what information the store’s collecting,” namely what things you just bought, Bedoya said. “But Amazon is tracking you throughout the store. Are they really only tracking you when you lift the item off a shelf? Or are they tracking where you move throughout the store, what you’re looking at, what sections you’re dwelling in?”
If the cashier-free technology expands, the stores could deeply erode the need for America’s second-most common job: About 3.5 million Americans work as cashiers nationwide, federal data show. Amazon and other retailers say employees will work on different tasks, including helping guide shoppers to the right items. Amazon Go’s few employees check drivers’ licenses for alcohol sales, stock shelves or prepare meal kits like a $19.99 salmon donburi plate.
“Grocery stores work on a very thin margin, so a cashier-less store is financially very appealing for the industry,” said Ryan Hamilton, a professor at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. “This has the potential to cause as much upheaval to cashier jobs as self-driving cars could to truck drivers and taxi drivers.”
But the store’s format, consumer psychologists said, could also help Amazon redefine one of retail’s core moneymakers, impulse buying, by eliminating the few lingering barriers that might make shoppers rethink what’s in their bag — a process Amazon has already mastered online through techniques like one-click purchasing.
“The less time we have to think about how much we’re spending, the more removed we are from the process,” said Kit Yarrow, a professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University. “What Amazon Go does is take away all of the negatives. It doesn’t give you time to consider how much you’ll be spending or how that will impact your budget. It puts all of the emphasis on the pleasure of what we’re consuming in that moment.”
Amazon has not shared any plans of a nationwide rollout, though some analysts expect it: The company now runs roughly a dozen brick-and-mortar bookstores and spent $13.7 billion last year buying hundreds of Whole Foods grocery stores nationwide.
The company will likely have competition from retail giants like Walmart and Kroger, America’s largest stand-alone grocery chain, which are rolling out or planning ways in hundreds of stores for shoppers to skip the cashier by, say, scanning their items with their phone.
Privacy experts say Amazon will likely face questions about what data they’re gathering on shoppers if the technology continues to grow.
“It’s really blurring our offline and online lives together,” said Joseph Jerome, policy counsel for the Washington nonprofit Center for Democracy & Technology. “You now have a full record of everything you’ve purchased — but it’s going to exist for all time, and it’s going to be owned by Amazon.”
The first day of shopping brought out some demonstrators, including Joy Carter of Seattle, who wore a cat mask, she said, to avoid the cameras.
“We’re rejecting the future they’re imposing on us,” Carter said. “This grocery store is a fantasy like there’s innovation here. But the implications are that the workforce is split into two classes: the people making $100,000 and up and others who have to scrape to survive.”
But most of those who showed up were fascinated. Jing Chou, 26, a University of Washington engineering student from the city of Changsha in southern China, and a fellow student from Beijing spent much of their Monday-morning visit snapping photos of the shelves, trying to figure out how Amazon did it.
They noted how their home country has similar cashier-less stores, but shoppers there have to meticulously scan each item before leaving. “I want to know how they track it,” Chou said, gazing at the ceiling cameras. “And if you bring something back, how they know.”
Julia Duin contributed from Seattle.