So you may have heard, Amazon just opened another concept bricks-and-mortar retail store called Amazon Go. It has the potential to revolutionize the physical shopping experience in ways I imagine most of us would welcome: no check-out lines! Customers simply scan their way in to the store using an app on their phones, find what they want, and walk out. Cameras, sensors and algorithms similar to those used in self-driving cars keep track of everything and charge our accounts accordingly. To anyone familiar with using other purchase services such as Amazon Prime, Dash, Pantry and Fresh, as well as Apple Pay, PayPal, Venmo and the like, (and let’s not forget Alexa), it won’t be that hard to overcome concerns about accuracy and security. There are plenty of other things to think about, including impacts on employment and the environment (there seems to be an awful lot of plastic in play around the perishables), but when viewed from an evolutionary and innovation perspective, this is exciting.
Right now the concept walks and quacks like a convenience store, but there’s nothing to suggest the technology underpinning the experience won't translate to thousands of other physical retail shopping experiences. It wasn’t that long ago (1997) when Jeff Bezos submitted his "Method and system for placing a purchase order via a communications network” to the US Patent & Trade Office. That became Amazon 1-click, a technology that millions of us utilize every day on Amazon, Apple iTunes, and in pretty much every other major online retailer’s shop. Who’s to say Amazon isn’t simply field-testing another technology that “everybody else” is going to have to license in order to compete in the physical world?
In these early days immediately after Amazon’s announcement, pundits are arguing about how “feasible” it will be for Amazon to compete against major grocery chains such as Kroger and Whole Foods. “They don’t have the infrastructure!” “It’s not their core strength!” “Etc.!” To me the story isn’t as much about Amazon as it is about how hard and creatively some of our more innovative retailers are thinking about the shopping experience. Disney’s MagicBand and Wall-Mart’s Pick Up & Fuel programs are already well established, as is self check-out in most major grocery chains and zero-currency programs on cruise ships. The former and the latter separate the shopping and spending experiences, a phenomenon that Amazon Go seems to be taking to the next level. Some will argue that, by so drastically streamlining the transaction process, we risk enabling irresponsible behavior and exacerbating personal financial instability. Maybe so, but these are not reasons to hamstring efforts to innovate. Consumers are famously bad at knowing what to do to improve a product or service. We’re better at communicating what doesn’t work, and we’re notorious for normalizing behaviors that, once they’re addressed, we mock as absurd.
The technologies behind Amazon Go have the potential not only to disrupt, but to fully upend the physical retail shopping experience. In the not-too-distant future, we (or at least the next generation) might be pointing and laughing at the very notion of standing inline waiting to pay for goods that we’re not buying online.
For the time-being the first store, in Seattle, is open only to employees, so we don't have direct consumer feedback on the experience. We do have a lot of questions arising in social media networks, though. They tend to center on the specifics of the technology, and whether the data that Amazon collects about customers will be used "against us." There's a lot of skepticism and suspicion, which is to be expected when such significant change is potentially in the offing. To quote the late science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."