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Hedged in by stereotypical Seattle construction as it is, Amazon Go is almost easy to stumble upon. If you didn't already know you were wandering into the vicinity of Amazon's Day 1 building, you might have no idea that the latest and greatest in the company's long line of innovation is nestled comfortably here.
Your first indicator that something strange might be afoot is the line spilling out the door. A long line. A line that's enduring Seattle's most oppressive weather: a bitter, suffocating, and wet sort of winter muck that typically scatters Seattle-ites under various forms of cover.
There's no such scattering today — there's a line out the door for a little ol' convenience store called Amazon Go. This has been the case since its grand opening on Monday, January 22nd. Why? Because this corner market is going to change the world.
The Little Convenience Store That Could
Amazon Go's claim to fame is its complete and utter lack of cashiers. That's right: as far as "convenience" stores are concerned, Amazon Go intends to be king.
The line of enthusiastic shoppers out the door isn't because there are too few people to check them out. It's simply because there are more shoppers than the building's fire safety code will allow. Amazon employees monitor the outdoor line, passing out orange Amazon Go bags and brightly answering consumer inquiries. While you wait, you're met with a series of signs entreating you to download the Amazon Go app, which is available on both iOS and Android. The app connects with your Amazon account (which you are expected to have) and is the key to entering the store and making your purchase.
We say "making your purchase" lightly, however. You don't ever actually have to make your purchase. This is the staggering beauty of Amazon Go. The point is, as their signs boast, to provide "Just Walk Out Shopping," with no lines and no checkout. You walk in, grab what you want, and walk out. That's right. You grab what you want and walk out. How many times have you made a trip to the grocery store for a loaf of bread and sat in a cashier's line for 20 minutes, watching a year's worth of food pour out of the carts of the people ahead of you?
To enter the store, you first open the Amazon Go app, which will display a QR code. Once you mosey your way through the long line of like-minded Amazon enthusiasts, you'll have your chance to swipe yourself in. The entrance feels much like a bus station, with intimidating gates lining the doorway.
If you have more than one person in your shopping party, you'll swipe each of them in first, then swipe yourself in last. Swiping them in on your own QR code is extremely important, as the items they take will be billed to the account of the QR code they entered with. If you brought children with you... we suggest you watch them carefully.
A Delicious Tourist Attraction
Amazon Go is a whopping... 1,800-square feet. For now, while the hype is still unbearable, you'll be jostling elbows with other shoppers, all equally enthused by the experience and all with their cell phones out, snapping pictures. For now, it's a crowded tourist attraction.
Regardless, the store itself is elegantly modern and thoroughly reminiscent of PCC Natural Markets (another Seattle-based corporation). Stocked products include snacks, meal kits, treats, drinks, and — wait for it — booze. At the farthest end of Amazon Go, you'll find a stern Amazonian guard protecting the stock of alcohol which, if you can prove you're over 21, you'll have access to, as well.
For such a small store, the selection is frankly overwhelming. There was a perfect mix of surprisingly normal grocery items and exotic Seattle-y organic goods. Need sour cream? You can get that at Amazon Go. Want a ready-to-eat pasta dish? Amazon Go. Hungry for a delicious brand of jerky that's nigh impossible to find anywhere else? Amazon Go. While we didn't sample any of the ready-made meals or brands we recognized, we did snag a Just Desserts Red Velvet Cupcake and a Portland Style Double Chocolate Cake (it was a single-serving, promise). Once we had what we wanted, we... walked out. We didn't need to swipe out, and a few minutes later the Amazon app sent me an invoice through my Amazon account for exactly what we had.
The magic of Amazon Go, and the reason it could very well change the world, is the incredible technology (hidden technology, as might be added) running the show. Everyone scanned through on your QR code can freely take items from shelves and put them back without fear of being charged for something they didn't want. What you buy is what you walk out of the gates with — and that's it.
For returns, you can consult your Amazon Go app. On your bill you can select your item and choose "Refund," which will give you different options. We desperately wanted to try this out to see what would happen, but what we bought from Amazon Go was so disgustingly delicious that we couldn't, in good conscience, request a refund because "the quality was not as expected."
Temporary or Revolutionary?
For returns, we were told that these were handled through the app as well, and that you would ultimately be handing the returned item to one of the Amazon Go employees. Yes — there are employees. For while Amazon Go can honestly tout itself as being cashier-free, it's certainly not employee-free. Several Amazonians fluttered outside among the people in line, one stood and grimly guarded the exterior door, one stood with the alcohol in the back, and several more flitted throughout the store itself. The store also needs to be stocked and maintained, naturally, and that also falls on the shoulders of Amazon Go employees.
But the mystery and the wonder of Amazon Go remains. You can walk in, pick an item, and walk out. Amazon isn't giving up its secret just yet, and while it admits it uses cameras, deep learning algorithms, and sensor fusion to make the magic happen, it's not saying much else. Sure, we already have self-checkout stations in most major grocery store chains. Sure, Amazon has already changed the shopping experience by making it easier than ever to buy online. That doesn't change the fact that this new technology is astounding, and so astounding that Amazon Go is the first of its kind in the world. So astounding that Amazon is keeping its cards close to its chest on this one.
And, of course, it's cool. It's undeniably cool to walk into a grocery store, pick something out, put something back, pick something else, and simply leave, knowing that Amazon will accurately charge you for what you actually took. It might feel gimmicky at first, but the applications for technology like this have to be otherworldly.
In the meantime, when you need a convenience store to be truly convenient... it doesn't get much better than this.
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