I experienced the future of retail: Amazon Go

The craziest thing I’ve seen is someone who came in dressed in a Pikachu costume,” said an Amazon employee while she handed me a promotional bag with the Amazon Go logo on one side and the text ‘good food fast’ on the other.

I arrived at the new store in downtown Seattle around 7:20 pm and was surprised to see the line of people still reached the end of the block. It had been a cold day in Seattle but that didn’t discourage the hundreds of people who came to see the ‘magical’ store on day 0. I didn’t use the term ‘magical’ lightly here: the experience was truly unique and it felt too good to be true. Amazon Go is probably the store with more sensors on the planet right now, and it is intimidating:

The ceiling of the Amazon Go store

Each of those boxes on the ceiling are cameras connected to deep learning algorithms that analyze every move you make: which aisle you walk through, what items you grab to read and then return to the shelf, what items you put in your pockets or bag… everything to ensure you only get charged for what you take home. But also, everything to ensure your shopping pattern is studied and well understood. Maybe not today, but it’s the inevitable next step and the ultimate dream for any retail store: to know what their customers like and the type of advertisements that will work best on them.

While I was walking through the store, I thought of a few minor tests that the system should be able to pass without issues: I first took a snack tray with fruit and cheese, and started roaming the store with no specific path in mind. For the next 5 or so minutes, every time I saw a cluster of customers, I walked towards it and squeezed in between several people, curious to see if the camera was able to follow me that way. I also stopped and removed my jacket (would the system notice that I changed my appearance?), then I grabbed a piece of manchego cheese, looked at it and let it fall in the bag I was carrying without inserting my arm into the bag (unless the cameras were tracking the item as well, my body moved as if the cheese evaporated from my hand). Finally, I took a bottle of drinkable yogurt and put it slowly in my backpack. It almost felt like stealing.

One Amazon employee told me that you can do pretty much anything other than obstructing the view above you, like opening an umbrella. You can even eat an item right there, before leaving (just don’t put the container back on the shelf).

In case you haven’t seen what the experience looks like, here’s the announcement video, which in fact was filmed in the actual store:

Amazon hasn’t announced any expansion plans, but I bet that they are just using this Amazon Go store as a pilot for many more in the future. If the concept works (and I know it will), Amazon has already a battery of stores waiting to be modernized with the so called ‘Just Walk Out’ technology: Whole Foods. It’s clear that Amazon wants Amazon Go to succeed since they could even license the technology to anyone and everyone.

Many worry about the impact on jobs, but as Sundar Pichai said about AI last Friday: “history shows that countries that pull back don’t do well with change. So you have to embrace the change.” That sentiment applies extremely well to this scenario as well; it’s a matter of time that technology replaces the cheapest manual labor, since it’s also the easiest to automate.

Amazon employees doing what robots cannot do yet

When I left the store, I confirmed that my digital receipt showed the right amount. I got charged correctly after all! I turned my head and noticed the line was still long, so I asked another Amazon employee one last question: “do you think it will be like this every day?” the answer was “I don’t think so!” but their wide smile told me the answer was “I hope so!

Editor’s note: Two years after this piece was written, Amazon launched a full size supermarket using the same technology as the Amazon Go store. Read about it here.

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