Tech companies are constantly exploring new ways to sell us their goods, and Amazon's latest example has plenty of people scratching their heads.
The online retailer has announced it is opening a brick-and-mortar physical store in Seattle, Washington, so that you can start buying your goods from Amazon in person rather than through Amazon.com. But the most unique thing about this store, which is called Amazon Go, is that it doesn't have any registers. You simply walk in, pick out what you want, and walk out. Amazon is calling this a "Just Walk Out" shopping experience.
Here's everything you need to know about Amazon Go.
What is Amazon Go?
Amazon has described Amazon Go as "a new kind of store with no checkout required". That means, when you shop at Amazon Go, you'll never have to wait in line. The store works with the new Amazon Go app. With that app, you can enter Amazon Go, take the products you want, and go. The first Amazon Go store is basically a grocery store with roughly 1,800 square feet of retail space.
Amazon said it began working on the store concept four years ago, with the idea that it wanted to "push the boundaries of computer vision and machine learning to create a store where customers could simply take what they want and go". Amazon Go therefore uses the same types of technologies found in self-driving cars, such as computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning.
This technology can detect when products are taken or returned to the shelves and keeps track of them in your virtual cart. When you leave the store with your goods, Amazon will charge your Amazon account (presumably the default payment option tied to the account), and send you a receipt.
What can you buy at Amazon Go?
Here's what Amazon is selling in its first Amazon Go store:
"We offer delicious ready-to-eat breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack options made fresh every day by our on-site chefs and favorite local kitchens and bakeries. Our selection of grocery essentials ranges from staples like bread and milk to artisan cheeses and locally made chocolates. You’ll find well-known brands we love, plus special finds we’re excited to introduce to customers. For a quick home-cooked dinner, pick up one of our chef-designed Amazon Meal Kits, with all the ingredients you need to make a meal for two in about 30 minutes."
How does Amazon Go work?
Amazon Go app
To get started with Amazon Go, you need an Amazon account, a supported smartphone, and the free Amazon Go app. Amazon hasn't announced which smartphones it'll support, but we're assuming the latest Android and iOS phones, based on its advert above. The video shows customers opening the Amazon Go app on their phones, then holding it to a scanning device, which works like a subway turnstile, and entering the store.
Customers then put away their phones and began shopping. Some people had Amazon Go-branded orange recycling bags, while others simply had their own totes or nothing at all. Customers picked up items, mulled purchasing them, and sometimes put items back on the shelf. But once they had everything they wanted, they could just go. The video shows people leaving the store -- sometimes while even drinking or eating what they bought.
At least one woman in the video pulled out her phone to see her receipt. From that screen, we could see most of the Amazon Go app. It had a navigation bar at the bottom with tabs for four screens: "Key", "Receipts", "About", and "More". The Key screen seems to bring up the QR code that the store's turnstiles scan to let you in, while the Receipts screen serves up what you bought after you've left.
Just Walk Out technology
Amazon said it is using a combination of artificial intelligence, computer vision, and data pulled from multiple sensors to allow customers to only be charged for the stuff they picked up. The computer vision aspect seems to indicate that there are cameras being used to track you in the store. It'll be interesting to see whether Amazon can successfully prevent stopping theft and fraud.
A patent application filed by Amazon in early 2015 first revealed details about a new kind of retail store that would allow Amazon customers to pick items and leave without stopping at a cashier register or kiosk. The patent described a store that would work using a system of cameras, sensors, or RFID readers to identify shoppers and the items they’ve chosen. Here's an excerpt:
“[W]hen the customer passes through the exit (transition area) of the retail location, the items picked by the user may be automatically transitioned from the materials handling facility to the user and the user may be charged a fee for the items. … For example, if the user is purchasing items from a retail location, rather than the user having to stop and ‘check out’ with a cashier, teller or automated check station, because the picked items are already known and identified on an item identifier list associated with the user, the user may simply exit the retail location with the items. The exit of the user will be detected and, as the user passes through the exit (transition area), the user, without having to stop or otherwise be delayed, will automatically be charged a fee for the items (the items are transitioned to the user).”
So, according to this Amazon patent application, which could be describing Amazon's new Just Walk Out technology, when a person exits the Amazon Go store, the store's system triggers a receipt that is sent to the shopper indicating the items sold and the purchase price. As to how Amazon would be able to connect a product with a specific shopper, the application described the use of cameras that would take photos.
They would take photos when people enter the store, when they removed items from a shelf, and when they left with items in their hands. There is also a mention of “facial recognition" and user information, which may include images of the user, details about the user like height and weight, user biometrics, a username and password, even user purchase history, etc.
Needless to say, Amazon is being pretty vague right now, and we're not entirely sure if this patent application accurately describes the current iteration of Just Walk Out technology. However, if it is a camera-tracking system that also uses AI in the form of facial recognition or user biometrics, as well as sensors, such as something in the label of products, we could see the technology stoking some privacy concerns.
Where is Amazon Go located?
The first Amazon Go store is located at 2131 7th Ave, Seattle, Washington. It's on the corner of 7th Avenue and Blanchard Street.
Are more Amazon Go locations in the works?
According to a report from The Wall Street Journal, Amazon hopes to one day open 2,000 grocery and convenience stores across the US. These stores might even have multiple formats, allowing it to better rival Target and Walmart.
Amazon is reportedly considering the convenience store model the most, while the other store formats include a smaller drive-thru retail shop and a massive, Ikea-style discount chain that involves up to 40,000-square-foot stores. Apparently the drive-thru prototype is just weeks away from being available, as two stores are under construction in Seattle.
Customers will simply pick up their packages at the drive-thru. They can order in-store via touchscreen displays or online, but then they'd go to the drive-thru to pick up their packages later.
When will Amazon Go be available?
Amazon Go is currently open to Amazon employees in beta. Amazon said it will make the store open to the public in early 2017.
What's next for Amazon Go?
Amazon hasn't confirmed if it is planning more stores, nor has it really detailed what's next, but we could see Amazon using its first Amazon Go storefront to better develop the Just Walk Out technology. It could then license the tech to other stores and make money from it. If the tech gets good enough, it could ideally put an end to retail theft, because when you try to walk out of a store with a stolen item, you'd still be charged.
But all that's just speculation.
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