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22 Jan 2018
Today's papers are full of puffy pieces about the wonderous new Amazon Go (pronounced, I hope, Ama-Zongo) in which you tap your phone as you enter and cameras watch what you do, figure out what you've put in your bag, and charge you for it when you leave. There's certainly no check-out lanes and few visible staff but the whole thing smells to me like a gimmick.
It's a little convenience store, everything is prepackaged (often expensively on-site for sandwiches and the like,) and in some cases they have to put special markings on the packages so the cameras can identify them. They probably only have a few hundred SKUs as opposed to 1,400 at Aldi or over 20,000 at a full-service supermarket. Their cameras get confused with 50 people in the store, which is perhaps as many as there are in the spaghetti aisle at my local Wegmans. This thing has a long, long way to go before it's relevant to a real grocery store, or even to normal convenience stores with staff that make slushies and check IDs for beer and tobacco.
I shop at low-price grocer Aldi a lot and I do not believe that the checkouts are a significant part of their labor costs. The whole store is set up to work with a lean staff, who stock the store mostly by opening large boxes of goods packed at the warehouse and setting them on the shelf or in the cooler to replace an empty box. The same people who do stocking and cleaning run the checkouts, which are European style with a seated person pulling goods across the scanner with both hands and into your cart. If you are used to US checkouts, you won't believe how fast they are. When there's a line they'll open an extra checkout, then close it 10 minutes later when the line is gone and go back to stocking or cleaning.
Amazon Go sort of reminds me of the old Horn and Hardart Automats, where indeed you did not deal directly with any people as you put your nickels in the slot and collected your pot pie, but there was a great deal of work behind the scenes to make everything fit in little fixed price packages.
I think Amazon Go is really about collecting info on how people shop, since as the Financial Times notes, the hundreds of cameras on the ceiling are looking at the shoppers at least as much as at the goods.
Bonus comment: the upscale Waitrose supermarket chain in the UK does checkout-less shopping with a portable handheld barcode scanner. As you enter the store you swipe your loyalty card which unlocks one of the scanners. You take it with you and scan goods as you pick them off the shelf and drop them into your shopping bags. There's an express checkout lane where you return the scanner, which knows what you've bought and what you owe, pay, usually by tapping a credit card, and leave. I've used it a few times when I've shopped at Waitrose and it works great. They reserve the right to audit your bags against what you've scanned but they never do, which is perhaps a comment on who shops there.
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