Amazon happy with customer response to cashierless store, but guarded about future plans
Amazon is pleased with customer response to its cashierless Amazon Go store, which opened to the public in Seattle this year. Yet it isn't ready to announce much about future plans for the unconventional concept.
One takeaway from a keynote presentation on Amazon Go at the ShopTalk conference being held this week in Las Vegas was that Amazon is making sure the technology, which utilizes machine learning and computer vision to eliminate the need for cashiers, continues to function seamlessly. It isn't surprising, given that the company has invested four years developing the technology.
"We've been delighted with customer response," said Gianna Puerini, vice president of Amazon Go. She said the company was surprised by the crowds that showed up when the store opened to the public in January. Puerini was joined on stage by Dilip Kumar, vice president of technology at Amazon Go and Amazon Books, and moderator Jeffrey Dastin, a technology correspondent for Reuters.
Puerini said that the store, which was launched in pilot and available to only Amazon employees for 14 months before its public debut, mostly provides "grab-and-go" food and essentials found in grocery stores.
How it works
At Amazon Go, customers scan into the store via an app and then shop as they would at any store. When they're done, the selected items are automatically charged to a virtual cart.
Unlike other self-serve shopping experiences, Amazon Go doesn't require shoppers to individually scan each item. Rather, the app uses artificial intelligence and computer vision to identify shoppers and track what they are buying. Cameras throughout the store read labels via machine learning. The cameras work in tandem with sensors in the store's shelves, all of which collect data about customer buying habits.
Many retail observers believe cashierless technology is the future of brick-and-mortar stores. Some believe that it could eliminate the need for self-checkout kiosks.
A complex technology
The system's simplicity belies the technological complexity that makes it possible, Kumar said. To make shopping and checkout seamless, the company needed a system that allowed it to know who removed what item from the shelf. This required a robust hardware and software infrastructure.
Kumar said Amazon opted to use a system that taps computer vision as opposed to other possible technologies, such as RFID. The technology chosen offers the benefit of not having to deal with labor-intensive tasks such as tagging SKUs, the method used in other self-service retail systems.
The computer vision is able to capture an arbitrary scene in the store and interpret what activity has taken place, Kumar explained. This required the development of many algorithms due to the large number of SKUs, the visual similarity of many of the SKUs, and the varying level of traffic in the store. He said the technology is being tested continuously to ensure that it works seamlessly.
Since the first Amazon Go store opened, the chicken sandwich has been the leading seller, Puerini said. Meal kits have also been successful, she said, as has fresh fruit in the morning and local baked goods.
Via the app, customers can offer suggestions for products they would like the store to carry.
Regarding customer behavior in the store, Puerini said they were surprised by the number of first-time customers who asked store associates if it was okay to simply leave the store. However, she said this became less frequent as customers made subsequent visits.
An uncertain future
Despite the positive customer response so far, Kumar said he couldn't predict whether cashierless technology would become widespread, noting that customers would ultimately be the deciding factor.
For now, at least, Amazon is not considering bringing the technology to its acquired Whole Foods stores, Puerini said.
As for the impact cashierless technology might have on store labor trends — a question that has also been raised about self-service kiosks in restaurants in the past year — Puerini did not give detailed information about the number of store employees, but pointed out that employees are busy restocking shelves and working in the store's kitchen. Puerini and Kumar declined to comment on inventory turns.
Elliot Maras is the editor of KioskMarketplace.com and FoodTruckOperator.com.