Amazon’s cashier-less convenience store of the future is finally in the present. Over a year after it was announced and after a well-publicized delay, Amazon Go opened its doors to the public today, giving anyone in downtown Seattle access to 1,800 square feet of grocery staples including bread, milk, and cheese, as well as premade snacks and fresh meals. You just walk in, grab the items you want on the shelf, and walk out — Amazon automatically charges you for the items after you leave the store, and you get an electronic receipt for your purchases.
Before today, the futuristic grocery store was available only to Amazon employees in a beta test. But now, the early reviews have started to roll in. The consensus so far? People who have tried it have said that walking out without going through a checkout line feels strangely like shoplifting.
Except it’s shoplifting that you usually can’t get away with. Here’s how it works: Customers download a dedicated Amazon Go app and scan a QR code to go through a turnstile at the store. (This way, Amazon also knows exactly who is in its store at all times.) You need an Amazon login, but don’t need Prime — Amazon’s members-only subscription for premium services.
Then, once you’re in, a system of computer vision, AI, and a whole bunch of sensors working in tandem can detect each item you take down from the shelves, as well as whether you’ve put something back. The bill arrives once you’ve left the store, and if there are any mistakes, or you aren’t satisfied with one of your purchases, you can hit a “refund” button. (You don’t have to trek back to the store and return the item to get your money back.)
For Amazon, the existence of a cashier-less store makes a lot of sense as the online retailer pushes deeper into the worlds of both groceries and brick-and-mortar stores. Last June, the company bought Whole Foods for $13.7 billion, in one of the tech industry’s most prominent acquisitions for 2017 — today, many Whole Foods’ “365 Everyday Value” products reportedly stock Amazon Go’s shelves. It’s also aggressively marketed Amazon Fresh, its online grocery shopping service, offering both pickup and delivery options in major cities. Go will also draw from Amazon's recent foray away from the web and into the physical world — the online retailer has about a dozen physical bookstores in places like New York, San Diego, Portland, and Boston.
While skipping the checkout line will likely take some getting used to, other questions are already surfacing about the commerce giant's convenience store of the future. Reports on Twitter Monday morning suggested that the company will not accept food stamps at the stores, raising concerns about exclusion (Amazon currently participates in a food stamp trial with other major grocery chains online). Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment as to whether it plans accept food stamps at its Go location. There are also some lingering questions about what an automated grocery store might mean for jobs.
For now, Amazon says the high-tech Amazon Go shopping experience does not mean humans will be losing their jobs to automation. The company says it will shift what would have been cashier jobs into other roles — for instance, it still needs human employees to restock its shelves, and it has reportedly stationed an employee in the beer and wine section of its store to check IDs before customers are allowed to purchase alcohol.
While Amazon will likely spend the next weeks and months ironing out logistical wrinkles, the biggest question facing the grocery store of the future remains an open one: What happens to all of those jobs if and when the cashier-less store is no longer a novelty but just the way we shop now?