No queues, no cash but lots of cameras: what it's like shopping at an Amazon store
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No queues, no cash but lots of cameras: what it's like shopping at an Amazon store

Amazon Go, the internet retail giant's first-of-a-kind till-free store in Seattle, is occupied mainly by two types of people: Amazon employees, and tourists.

You enter the store through smartphone-controlled gates.

You enter the store through smartphone-controlled gates.

Photo: Bloomberg

The shop sits on the ground floor of Amazon's 37-storey headquarters in Seattle, making it the closest grocery store in range of its thousands of employees (a special door between the store and the office means they need not even go into the street). Outside, a small throng of tourists pose for selfies, probably the only convenience store in the world where this is the case. To be fair, there's more to see here than the average Tesco Express.

Amazon Go, which opened to the public in January, is the company's first checkout-free store. There are no queues, no cash, and no unexpected item in bagging area. Instead, there are smartphone-controlled gates, and a lot of cameras.

Entering the store requires shoppers to download a special app, which links to your Amazon account and credit card. Your phone then generates a code which a tube-style automatic gate will scan to let you in. From that moment, every one of your movements is being tracked by an array of what seems like hundreds of cameras attached to the ceiling.

A combination of those cameras and pressure plates on the store's shelves detect when you have picked up an item, adding it to your virtual shopping cart. When you put something back, it deducts it again (when setting up the app, Amazon warns you not to pick stuff up for another shopper, as it would recognise you as taking it). The shelves stock typical American supermarket fare: enormous sandwiches, 900 different energy drinks and instant mac 'n' cheese.

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When you're done grabbing stuff, you're done: walk out of the electronic gates and a few minutes later, a receipt pops up on your phone.

You won't be held up by queues at Amazon Go.

You won't be held up by queues at Amazon Go.

Photo: Bloomberg

Nobody checks your bag on the way out; the only staff in sight were one attendant monitoring the gates and another to check IDs around the people taking alcohol (that, at least, has not been cracked by technology). I have never knowingly shoplifted, but I imagine it would feel something like this. Tricking the system proved impossible, and I tried. I picked cupcakes up and put them down repeatedly. I carried things around the store for a few minutes before putting them back. I grabbed stuff behind my back. By the end of it, I was starting to worry that the technology wouldn't work, and that I'd end up with a gargantuan bill. Luckily, the app correctly totted up my modest haul: a bottle of water, an energy bar, a cookie and a packet of gummy bears.

There is one way to game the system: when you get a receipt, you can dispute that you took a certain item, presumably resulting in a refund. But one suspects that trying this more than a couple of times would raise suspicions. Considering Amazon's apparent teething troubles getting the store to work (it took over a year between it opening to staff and the general public), the whole thing was eerily convenient. The one thing that struck me about the shop was the sheer number of cameras above your head.

You know that statistic about the average Briton being caught on CCTV 70 times a day? At Amazon Go, you surpass that in a few seconds. This is surveillance shopping at its finest.

Will this stop Amazon? None of the shoppers around me seemed uncomfortable with being constantly monitored from all angles. There's an argument that we shouldn't be worried: we have given away our shopping data via loyalty cards for years, after all.

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On the other hand, Amazon Go knows more than what we buy, in particular what we don't. If I pick up a bottle of wine and put it down in a moment of strength, what are the chances of wine adverts popping into my Facebook feed on the way home? But the ones who should be really concerned are the rest of the retail industry, and the people who work in it. Amazon's assault on the grocery market has been slower than many expected, but last year's acquisition of Whole Foods, and reports that it considered a move for Waitrose, suggest it is picking up steam.

Expansion plans for Amazon Go are under way, and last year it trademarked related slogans in the UK and Europe.

If the company can eliminate the majority of staff from stores, it cuts out one of the biggest costs to supermarkets, allowing Amazon to lower prices in a low margin business that others could not compete with.

Hundreds of cameras, and the server power required to process their data, do not come cheap. Surveillance concerns may put some consumers off. But I suspect for most people, convenience would trump privacy.

Telegraph, London