Retail giant Amazon.com announced on Friday morning that it plans to buy your favorite place to buy asparagus water, Whole Foods Market, for $13.7 billion. The move stands to solve a huge problem for Amazon: the “last mile,” which is shorthand for the idea that, the closer you get to a product’s final destination, the more challenges you have in delivering it. With Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods, it essentially bought hundreds of distribution centers for fresh dairy, meat and produce — and dramatically expanded its offerings through its own grocery delivery service. (Mandatory disclosure: Amazon and The Washington Post share an owner, Jeffrey P. Bezos.)
But expanding AmazonFresh isn’t the only thing that could come out of this deal. Amazon’s purchase could drastically change the way we shop for groceries. Here’s what we might see in the Whole Foods of the future:
No more lines. We’ll start with the obvious one. The wait at “express” lines in urban Whole Foods locations is the stuff of legend, especially on busy Sunday evenings. Say farewell to them. We can expect that Whole Foods will bring the same technology it employs in its experimental Amazon Go store, which eliminated the checkout line. At Amazon Go in Seattle, customers add items to their carts, and a combination of technology including sensors, machine learning and computer vision can detect what they are purchasing. As long as they have the Amazon Go app, they can just walk out of the store, and their Amazon account will automatically be charged. Once this technology is in place, you’ll spend a lot less time waiting at the grocery store.
Kale delivered by drone. Amazon has been working on drone delivery for a while, and Amazon Prime Air, as the feature is called, made its first public delivery in March. The loading docks at Whole Foods could eventually become airports for drones, delivering customers’ groceries across town (though drone delivery may face more hurdles in Washington, which has high security needs). As for ground-based delivery: The acquisition is bad news for Instacart, which is Whole Foods’ current delivery system — and an Amazon Prime competitor. You can expect that Whole Foods’ same-day orders will be fulfilled through AmazonFresh’s distribution network.
An Amazon integration for everything. The Amazon Dash Wand is a home bar code scanner that recently debuted to integrate with Alexa. If you see you’re running low on pasta sauce, like the woman in the video below, you can scan the bar code and have it added to your grocery order. You can also read off your grocery list to Alexa, and she’ll take care of it. You can also ask Alexa for recipes. But as our kitchens get smarter, perhaps Amazon Echo will know all of the items in your fridge and pantry, and those recipe suggestions will be automatic. You could ask, “Alexa, what should I have for dinner?” and she could read you a list of suggestions based on what’s in your kitchen. If you picked, say, a lasagna, and if Alexa is integrated with other smart appliances in the home, perhaps she could automatically preheat your oven and walk you through the recipe. Either way, we can expect Amazon to become a bigger presence in our kitchens.
Lower prices. Whole Foods has long been criticized for its prices — “Whole Paycheck,” you know — and almost everyone on Twitter this morning thought they were being oh-so-clever making about 100 different versions of this joke:
Amazon buys Whole Foods for 13.7 billion, roughly equivalent to 11 shopping bags of their organic berries.— Warren Leight (@warrenleightTV) June 16, 2017
The company has struggled in recent months, because consumers have flocked to such lower-price stores as Walmart that have expanded their selection of natural and organic foods. Whole Foods announced in April that it was planning to lower prices to win back customers, and it has also been opening 365 by Whole Foods stores, which feature its lower-cost house brand. Amazon has a house brand, too: AmazonBasics, whose products include bocce kits and puppy training pads. It’s unclear how much the branding of each company will mingle — especially because Whole Foods has pledged not to loosen its exacting standards on ingredients and packaging — but we could be seeing AmazonBasics dish towels and toilet paper at Whole Foods. At the same time, Amazon has patented technology to prevent people from doing online price checks in its own stores — which is one of store owners’ biggest complaints about Amazon.
Amazon-owned restaurants. Many Whole Foods locations, like the one on Washington’s H Street NE, have restaurants — or “grocerants,” as per the industry lingo — inside. This means that with the purchase of Whole Foods, Amazon is getting into the restaurant business, too. The company is already in the restaurant delivery business, so we can expect that these restaurants will do a lot of delivery. And while these restaurants tend to be fast-casual places where you pay at the counter, Amazon Go could enter the restaurant business model, too; no more waiting for a server to bring a check. Say Amazon Prime Video produces a cooking show: Would there be tie-ins at Whole Foods restaurants?
High-tech surprises. On its clothing retail side, Amazon is working with 3-D modeling to help clothes fit properly without customers trying them on. Likewise, there are surely other innovations in store for grocery shoppers that will change the way we spend, cook and eat. Maybe customers will be able to design their own cakes, which can be 3-D printed at a Whole Foods bakery. Maybe through virtual reality, we’ll be able to experience picking our own produce from a field. Maybe AI will help us select wines and cheeses. There are definitely surprises to come.