I can already see the new Amazon Fresh supermarket in Ealing, West London, from a block away. The store’s logo, white and green, turns heads on the busy street. “You can pay with your phone, it’s crazy,” says a woman to her husband as he points towards the exit without a cashier.
In early March, Amazon opened its first “just walk out” grocery store in Europe, where customers can simply put their items in a bag and exit without paying at a cash register.
At the entrance, staff in fluorescent green Amazon Fresh t-shirts explain the process. I have to open the Amazon application on my mobile and scan a custom QR code. A green light appears and the door opens to let me in. The moment I enter the store, the application times my visit.
Technology to detect any movement
At first glance, the store looks like a typical small supermarket in London. But a glance at the ceiling quickly reveals the difference: cameras and motion sensors point in all directions, watching every inch of the store.
Every item I put in my fluorescent green Amazon Fresh bag is automatically added to a virtual cart. I can’t help staring at the cameras as I pick the items off the shelf, expecting them to move with my every move, like in a sci-fi movie from the 90s. But they don’t move.
Amazon uses a combination of computer vision, depth sensors, and machine learning to record exactly what item shoppers take off the shelf. The technology pioneered Amazon Go stores in the United States, which opened in 2018.
The company has stated that it will only associate the information collected in the store with the customer’s Amazon account for a maximum of 30 days.
But UK data protection groups criticize the amount of personal data the company obtains with this technology. “We need to know more about what that really means in practice and what the potential for data reassociation may be,” Jim Killock, CEO of the Open Rights Group, tells me later.
The missing piece
As I walk through the grocery store, the smiling Amazon logo smiles at me from every shelf. Along with opening its Ealing store, Amazon launched its own grocery brand. Hundreds of her own brand items line the shelves: Mashed Potatoes from Amazon, Cured Ham from Amazon, Yellow Roses from Amazon.
Natalie Berg, a retail analyst and founder of NBK Retail, tells me later that a physical grocery store was the missing piece of the puzzle from Amazon’s market dominance strategy. “Groceries are a really important category, because customers buy groceries on a regular basis. Going into this business is Amazon’s way of getting them to buy everything else, too,” he said.
The last manual ritual
The supermarket works completely without carts or shopping baskets, allowing me to move through the aisles quickly. When I get to the liquor corner, I am shocked to see two employees – real people – standing up, looking very much like a pair of doormen. After choosing a wine, one of them checks my ID card. The fact that age confirmation is still done manually is surprisingly reassuring.
Walking towards the exit, I almost expect an alarm to go off when I walk out of the store with the shopping bags under my arm. Instead, the door opens and allows me to walk back onto the busy shopping street.
The cashier-less model is nothing new to British shoppers. Other UK retailers, such as Tesco and Marks & Spencer, have also adopted their own versions. But Amazon’s technology is the only one that doesn’t require customers to scan their shopping items in an app. “The Amazon concept is a game changer because it’s perfect,” says Berg.
Back from my Amazon Fresh shopping trip, I made a salad with the ingredients I had purchased. Taking the first bite, I realized that I had no idea how much I had spent on the purchase.
A quick glance at the Amazon app revealed it all. After 2:55 p.m. in the store, the final bill amounted to £ 15.56 (€ 18.25; $ 21.42). The experience seemed more like an online purchase than a visit to a supermarket.
Author: Marie Sina