Back when self-checkout first arrived at retail and grocery stores nationwide, fears of millions of job losses for cashiers were stoked. That hasn’t happened, in large part because self-checkout is awful — too many terminals are out of order, the scales don’t always work properly, and some of them try to tell you to use a bag when you don’t want to! There’s so much that can go wrong that long lines end up forming anyway, making it easier to just check out with a human cashier.
Today, Amazon announced a physical grocery store concept that might validate those cashier fears. If the main problem with self-checkout is that too much can go wrong, that won’t be a problem with Amazon Go stores — checking out will be as easy as walking out of the store with whatever you want. What could go wrong?
While there are probably foreseen and unforeseen problems alike with Amazon’s concept, it won’t be a shoplifter’s dream store. Shoppers will enter the store by scanning their phones at turnstiles or gates, which will check them in using their Amazon accounts. From there, shoppers can grab stuff off shelves — sensors and cameras will detect when items are picked up, adding the item to that shopper’s Amazon account. Once shoppers are done, they can just leave — the store will be able to detect that they’ve left and will automatically charge their Amazon accounts.
The new concept is most likely not just about making checkout super easy. Amazon Go works by outfitting the store and shelves with tons of sensors, and while the purpose of those sensors for shoppers is to stock their virtual cart, they probably mean something else for Amazon. Using those sensors, they’ll be able to see how long shoppers stay in certain aisles, how often certain items get picked up and put back, and possibly even which items customers spend the most time looking at. When paired with individual accounts, that could allow Amazon to improve product suggestions, and it’ll definitely work to help Amazon decide which items to keep stocking and which to ax.
While it won’t require human cashiers, you can bet Amazon Go won’t go unmanned. Amazon is currently testing the first store, located in Seattle, with their employees, but a wider rollout will present some interesting challenges. There are a lot of questions that need answering, because there’s a lot of ways more untoward shoppers could try to game the system. Will it be possible to trick the store into putting an item into someone else’s virtual cart by getting close enough to them? What happens if you turn your phone off (in theory, this would prevent Amazon from associating items to your account)? The answer is probably security staff, and there’s a good bet that they’ll be able to keep tabs on which shoppers are in store and will be alerted when someone goes dark before leaving the premises. Is there going to be loud and copious beeping when someone enters or exits without Amazon getting a read on them? We’re thinking yes.
But, there are more honest questions, too. What happens if someone puts an item back on the wrong shelf? The cameras in use could be good enough to tell the difference and alert a stocker working for the store, but will that system be foolproof? Lots of interesting questions that need answering, but Amazon must have been working on them for a while — today’s announcement indicates that they are planning to open their Seattle store to the public in spring of next year.