Amazon Go Reviews: Praise for Shopping Speed, Caution Around Privacy

Whole Foods has always been on the bleeding edge of improving the efficiency of the grocery store checkout. The New York Times praised the chain a decade ago for its single-line strategy, which other retailers copied. Other trade publications have noted unique tactics Whole Foods uses in its busiest stores, like the color-coded system at the Union Square location in New York.

Few may have expected that Amazon, which acquired Austin, TX-based Whole Foods for $13.7 billion last year, would eventually be the one to develop a more efficient check-out method—by applying technologies similar to those used in self-driving cars.

On Monday, Amazon opened its first Amazon Go convenience store in Seattle, which lets customers walk in, grab the grocery items they want, and walk out with them without needing a cashier to scan anything. Customers who want to enter the store must log in to the company’s Amazon Go app on a smartphone, and then scan a QR code to get through a security turnstile. The store had previously only been open to Amazon employees.

While customers shop in the store, computer vision algorithms, sensors, and machine learning programs track each individual’s movements and the items they put in their bags, as well as the ones they return to the shelf. That lets Amazon track what a customer leaves the store with and charge them accordingly, according to the Seattle-based retail giant.

News publications that tested the store early found the system to be effective; reporters were intrigued by the success the scanners and sensors had in tracking what they selected and left the store with, while also being skeptical of the potential chaos that a busier rush hour might bring. MIT Technology Review noted that the process was quick and seamless, though it was unnerving to not interact with any humans. Bloomberg said that customers who are unhappy with an item can click the refund button with no questions asked—the chain believes that people who abuse the system will be in the minority, according to the publication.

There is also broader skepticism of the setup, including concerns about a privacy-free future with a “searchable index of anything anyone does,” as Popular Mechanics noted. There’s also the possibility of job losses, most obviously to cashiers. Amazon told The New York Times that such stores will merely result in a shift of responsibility, similar to what automation has done for warehouse workers.

The Times notably attempted to sneak out of the store (allegedly with Amazon’s permission) without the computer technology noticing by wrapping up a four-pack of vanilla soda while it was still on the shelf. Once the reporter was outside, a $4.35 cent charge appeared on his phone. CNBC tech reporter Deirdre Bosa said on Twitter that she shoplifted a Siggi’s yogurt from the store. New York-based Siggi’s responded to the tweet, saying “That one’s on us.”

Amazon Go sells items you’d typically find in a convenience store, such as soda or chips, as well as higher-end products, such as meal kits and artisanal cheese. Amazon hasn’t revealed whether any other cities will get these cashierless convenience stores. Though a good guess for Amazon Go’s second location might be whatever city the e-commerce giant chooses for its second headquarters later this year.

David Holley is Xconomy's national correspondent based in Austin, TX. You can reach him at dholley@xconomy.com Follow @xconholley

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