The most fascinating thing about Amazon Go is not what it is — a grocery store with no checkout lines, belts or cashiers.
Or how it works:
Our checkout-free shopping experience is made possible by the same types of technologies used in self-driving cars: computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning. Our Just Walk Out Technology automatically detects when products are taken from or returned to the shelves and keeps track of them in a virtual cart.
This isn’t even all that new; IBM proposed it a decade ago:
The key question is why. Amazon’s answer to that question is unsatisfactory:
Four years ago we asked ourselves: what if we could create a shopping experience with no lines and no checkout? Could we push the boundaries of computer vision and machine learning to create a store where customers could simply take what they want and go? Our answer to those questions is Amazon Go and Just Walk Out Shopping.
But Amazon already has a shopping experience with no lines and no checkout; it's called Amazon.com. Millions of people use it every day.
It has tried, but Amazon hasn't made much of a dent in the $606 billion grocery biz. Food is different; for many people, it's a last-minute decision. People want to see it, squeeze it, to know that it's fresh. And drones can’t solve that problem.
When you look at the Amazon Go video, you don't see people buying a head of lettuce. They're buying prepared foods, ready-to eat stuff, or if you want to cook, there are Amazon Meal Kits, which provide everything you need for dinner for two in about 30 minutes.
But I want it now
On Amazon.com, the patented one-click shopping is easy and painless. Amazon Go is for the people (like me) who don’t have the patience for one-click shopping and waiting for delivery; we want no-click shopping and like Homer Simpson, we want it now. This is an online store that's offline, because hunger for food is different than hunger for a new smartphone or book.
Most of the analysts and critics are comparing this to a grocery store, worrying about how it will deal with broccoli and tomatoes and things that have to be weighed. They complain that there will be too much "shrinkage" (theft), which I doubt, with all those cameras watching.
But watching the video, seeing what's on the shelves, it's clear that people are not coming here to buy broccoli by the pound. This is a direct attack on a much larger market, the prepared food industry, which includes restaurants, takeout and the growing prepared food departments of high-end supermarkets.
The most perceptive article I've read about Amazon Go was by Hannah White of IoT, who worries what this technology will do to retail jobs, to all those cashiers who currently work in grocery stores.
Contrary to the popular belief that truck drivers lead the American workforce, the most common job in America is retail salesperson, with cashier coming in at close second. Both jobs, which together employ a total of 7.8 million Americans right now, are in jeopardy with “Just Walk Out” technology.
She may be right, but again, Amazon Go feels like less of a threat to the full-service grocery store than it is to the prepared food industry. Prepared food requires people; those cupcakes have to be put into packages and put onto shelves. The cashiers are only the most visible part of a grocery shopping experience. That's also the most unpleasant and tedious part of the experience, and I don't think it will be missed.
Amazon Go is not a grocery store upgraded with online-style technology; it's an online experience surrounded by brick walls. I think this might be a very good thing, bringing a company that did much to kill Main Street back into town with real stores, and all for the benefit for people who want it now.