by Max Milano (Tech Writer)
Those of us living in the San Francisco tech bubble can be forgiven if we sometimes act blasé when presented with yet another piece of evidence that proves unequivocally that we're already living in the future.
It might be a dystopian semi-blade runner future with cute tech logos and friendly fonts, but the future it is. A future of abandoned electric scooters vandalized for parts , all wrapped up in an eerie dark orange smog from forest ﬁres exacerbated by rapid climate change.
After all, we wake up every day to drive or ride on some of the most clogged freeways in the universe where every other car on the road is an Uber or Lyft or a Google shuttle bus, and where Waymo driverless cars are a common sight. Come lunchtime, the myriad of options further proves we're living in the future, with robots making lunch deliveries for Door Dash and all kinds of delivery apps at the tip of our ﬁngers.
For braver souls, you always have the option of leaving your ping pong appointed "shared workspaces" and heading to Eatsa, a restaurant with no human workers in sight, to pick up your app-ordered quinoa bowl.
But why do we need a restaurant with no visible human workers you may ask? Well, apparently, tech workers have reported anxiety attacks when ordering from a human via the telephone and at lunch counters (we're not making this up). This has fueled a veritable cottage industry of food ordering and delivery apps, thus lowering human interaction at cafes and restaurants to a minimum. This tendency is a win-win for savvy entrepreneurs who've jumped on this trend and started offering haute cuisine on a self-service cafeteria model (while maintaining haute cuisine prices, of course).
All this sounds like perfect fertile soil for a cashierless corner shop. That's why we were looking forward to checking out the new Amazon Go store that opened in San Francisco on October 28, 2018.
Spankin' new Amazon Go store in San Francisco's Financial District
We excitedly checked out the Amazon Go website the night before to ﬁnd out what was needed in order to "Just Walk Out" as the Amazon Go motto goes. The Amazon Go web page turns out to be well designed and features a video explaining how the process works. You download the app, then head down to the store where you scan the app's QR code by the turnstiles, and you're in.
The next day, come lunchtime, we leave our trendy "collaborative" offices with smartphones fully loaded with the Amazon Go app. The usual San Francisco lunchtime gauntlet run consists of speedwalking on sidewalks and avoiding the crowds of tech professionals running from one deal to the next.
This goes on for several blocks right under the shadow of the Salesforce Tower, looming above it all like the Death Star.
Not a still from Blade Runner 2049: San Francisco's blood-red smoggy skyline due to forrest fires in Nor-Cal
But nothing could dampen our excitement as we walked the delirious sidewalks of San Francisco towards the new Amazon Go store. No Cashiers! Just walk out! No human interaction! Social anxiety begone!
We arrive at the store and discover, to our surprise, that it's a lot smaller than we thought it would be. About the size of a small 7/11. There's a sign outside that reminds you to download the Amazon Go app. A line to get in has already formed around the corner as we approach, but it's gone by the time we get there. Everyone has gone in, and we were next.
Inside the doors, we're greeted by Amazon staff in orange shirts whose main mission seems to be to make sure that everyone has downloaded the Amazon Go app. Without this, the 3 turnstiles guarding the entrance won't open to let you into the inner sanctum.
Scan your Amazon Go App to open the turnstiles
App scanned, turnstiles up, and we're inside. It's busy but not too bad, considering the crowd we saw outside. Turns out that not having cashiers completely eliminates the need for queues to pay. "Just walk out", remember?
Once inside the store, you could be in any normal ﬁnancial area corner shop. This means plenty of pre-packaged sandwiches and wraps. Several sections of drinks (no alcohol yet) offer the usual sodas and some more trendy options like juices and kombuchas. There is one section for take-home precut vegetables and dinner kits. Presumably, tech workers and ﬁnancial district professionals are too busy to go to the supermarket, so they are encouraged to pick up a box of chopped carrots and an Amazon Meal Kit on the way home.
Designed like a regular financial district corner shop but the high tech lives in the ceiling and embedded in shelves.
Just Walk Out
Once we made our food selection (tuna wrap, Vietnamese sandwich, a couple of canned sodas and a bag of chips), it was time for us to "Just Walk Out". Apparently, some people had anxiety about just walking out, so the staff had to help them, encouraging them to take baby steps until the turnstiles went up and, like magic, they found themselves back on the mad sidewalks for their gauntlet run back to their (presumably) trendy offices.
I for one love the "Just Walk Out" motto. It reminds me of Nike's "Just Do It". So motivational! So we just walked out, and it felt good. Great in fact.
Once on the other side of the turnstiles, you're given the option of actually leaving the store, or staying for a while to eat your seamlessly purchased food in one of the 3 or 4 tables on offer. We sit on stools that line the window and watch how the line outside grows and disappears with clockwork regularity. There is no way a traditional corner shop with cashiers could manage to serve this huge amount of people in such a short time. I counted at least ﬁve or six times when the line formed around the block, only to disappear completely in seconds, and then be replaced by another big line which promptly disappeared as well.
Huge Traﬃc, Huge Proﬁts
The fact that such a small store can handle such a huge amount of traffic seamlessly and without spoiling the user experience has to be a massive game changer. I'm sure other large corporations are looking at this experiment quite attentively. Wouldn't other high traffic stores like Walgreens or large Las Vegas hotels beneﬁt from this or similar technology? No more long queues at the car rental, or the supermarket or your busy ﬁnancial district corner shop.
Seamless It Is
As we ﬁnish our food we look up to a large white tiled wall behind us with "Just Walk Out" etched in orange. The tech that enables the whole operation to work so well is perfectly hidden by being out in the open. The shop's high ceiling conveys an array of pipes and dark plastic squares with hidden cameras. The shelves themselves also have hidden tech that doesn't become obvious to the user.
When we ﬁnally "Just Walk Out" for real, our apps beep, and we can see the itemized bill, displaying an image of all the products we just consumed on a white background, Amazon style. I'm sure it's just a matter of time before brands start using this for marketing since they will know exactly how many $7 green tea kombuchas you consume any given day.
So, have we seen the future of retail? We hope so. But given the amount of research and technology investment needed to make this tech universal, it might be a while until your local 7/11 goes cashierless. But then again, there was once a time when cell phones were considered a luxury for business people only.
Because of the way Amazon has managed to make the whole Amazon Go store experience happen so smoothly and seamlessly, one can easily predict that cashiers and non-self serve checkouts will be going the way of payphone boxes.
One caveat could be that Amazon has now made a play for the high street. How long before it also dominates the real world shopping carts as it has the virtual ones? We, after all, already work and live with countless apps and websites that run on Amazon cloud servers. The very words I'm typing now live on Amazon's servers, as well as the music I'm listening to right now on Amazon music. We don't need to imagine some Orwellian overlord that knows everything about us. We have already willingly let Amazon know how many wraps we eat each day, how many kombuchas we drink, how many times we play that song, album or playlist, how many things we buy online. All this data tells Amazon the story of our lives, and it's a goldmine for marketers. If we're ok with that, for the sake of convenience, then let's hope our tech overlords treat us with compassion. Otherwise, the upcoming war against the robots is already lost.
With these thoughts in mind, we step back outside and get ready to run the gauntlet back to our share-space.