Amazon Store Is Ready To Go Sans Cashiers, Checkout Lines

You won’t need your wallet or credit cards but you do need a  special Amazon Go app to get into the new convenience store that’s opening to the public in 1,800 square feet of retail space on the bottom floor of the company’s downtown Seattle headquarters today.

It’s what shopping would look like if you could “walk into a store, grab what you want and just go” is the message of a promotional video that touts its “Just Walk Out” technology as being akin to that in driverless cars.

Recode’s Jason del Ray is among the many who got a sneak peek at the shop and he has lots of pictures to share. The technology that drives Amazon is all about picture-taking, in fact. 



“See those black squares on the ceiling? Those are cameras and they are all over the store,” reads one caption in del Rey’s piece.

But they’re not just there to thwart shoplifters who’d stuff a bottle of pinot noir into a backpack and try to slip out the door. Fat chance of succeeding, however.

There are “many, many” of them, writes Devin Coldewey for TechCrunch. “These are ordinary RGB cameras, custom made with boards in the enclosure to do some basic grunt computer vision work, presumably things like motion detection, basic object identification, and so on. They’re augmented by separate depth-sensing cameras (using a time-of-flight technique, or so I understood from [Dilip Kumar, the project’s VP of Technology]) that blend into the background like the rest, all matte black.”

In the end, the system is capable of “quickly and accurately identifying different people in the store and objects being picked up or held,” as well as determining if it’s put into your shopping bag or returned to the shelf. If it’s the former, your Amazon account is charged as you leave the store.

“There were a little over 3.5 million cashiers in the United States in 2016 — and some of their jobs may be in jeopardy if the technology behind Amazon Go eventually spreads. For now, Amazon says its technology simply changes the role of employees — the same way it describes the impact of automation on its warehouse workers,” writes Nick Wingfield for the New York Times.  

“Those tasks include restocking shelves and helping customers troubleshoot any technical problems. Store employees mill about ready to help customers find items, and there is a kitchen next door with chefs preparing meals for sale in the store,” he continues. Another checks identification in the wine-and-beer section.

Amazon has been testing the concept in the same space with its own employees for about a year.

“It was originally scheduled to open to the public in early 2017 but was delayed in part due to the complexity of the technology,” writes Elizabeth Weise for USA Today.

“This is the definition of disruption. This is Netflix replacing Blockbuster, this is Uber replacing taxis,” Forrester Research principal analyst Brendan Witcher tells her. 

Amazon’s Kumar tells the Wall Street Journal’s Laura Stevens, who wrote about technical glitches with the test back in late March, that “there are currently no plans to introduce the technology in Whole Foods. He added, however, that every project should be expandable.”

“We have this unwritten rule that whatever it is you’re building, you have to be able to scale it so that it covers significantly amount of more load than what you would normally ever expect,” Kumar says.

But Amazon is not the only company working on checkout-free shopping — Stockholm-based Wheelys has tested an autonomous store in China, while a Silicon Valley startup called Standard Cognition is working on its own version of cashier-free checkout,” reports Rachel Metz for MIT Technology Review

“But it is by far the most prominent company to try it. And its clout as a retailer on and off the Web, plus its ability to build something as complicated as a checkout-free store from start to finish with its own tools and businesses (beyond Whole Foods, its Amazon Web Services is available to host all the data this kind of service requires), makes it the most likely to succeed in the near future,” Metz concludes.

Wheelys, which has also been running several test stores in Sweden, cheekily disagrees. While it tips its hat to Amazon’s marketing prowess, it concedes nothing in terms of technology.

“Your answers to these questions sound a bit Amazon-ish?” reads the last FAQ about its Wheelys 247 shopping technology. “Glad you noticed. Since Amazon is trying to copy our store concept, we’ve borrowed a few questions from them. While their stores need some work, they are not at all bad at copywriting!”

Wheelys’s video strikes a similar tone. Maybe there will be life besides Amazon after all.

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