Much like fulfillment, checkout has become the hottest topic for retailers that have finally realized what a hassle this aspect of shopping can be. From self-checkout kiosks and employees armed with handheld devices, chains are now instituting self-scanning features that work through their apps and specially designated express lanes to make the getaway easier.
But as is typically the case these days, Amazon has beat them all to what is, at least for now, the most seamless checkout system around with its Amazon Go concept. The fully automated store, which opened in January, allows shoppers to simply scan in via the Go app and proceed as normal until they’re done. Then, they simply leave with their purchases. The items are tallied and paid for through the app.
Two of the leads on the project, Amazon Go VP Gianna Puerini and Dilip Kumar, VP of Technology, Amazon Go and Amazon Books, sat down for a keynote discussion during the ShopTalk conference in Las Vegas, Nevada Sunday.
“The way we looked at it was we have an idea that checkout isn’t the best part of physical shopping experience but physical shopping is actually fantastic,” she said by way of explaining how the concept came about. “Let’s take the people and put them on the tasks where we think they add more value.”
The goal was to devise a store that worked like a traditional one, for the most part, so that it wouldn’t require much of a learning curve for shoppers.
Though it may look simple in practice, Amazon Go turned out to be quite challenging, especially considering how many similar SKUs there are in a grocery store. Think Frosted Flakes and gluten-free Frosted Flakes. How is a computer supposed to know the difference?
Kumar said Amazon’s solution had to be accurate or there was no chance people would return to a store that charged them for the wrong items.
In the end, his team looked to similar innovations as those bringing self-driving cars to the not-too-distant-future.
“The approach we chose was to see how best to leverage computer vision and bring it to solve this problem of who took what in a grocery store setting,” he said, adding that in addition to sensors, the technology turned out to be the best choice in an environment where there are multiple shoppers filling their baskets with any number of items all the time.
While other retailers are attempting to use different technology to accomplish the same thing, Amazon found they either weren’t accurate enough or they made the job too labor intensive. “From an RFID perspective, we didn’t want to incur the operational burden of tagging every item, so we wanted to solve it a way that was a little more seamless for customers and for us,” he said.
Kumar said for as much progress as Amazon has made, the company is still working to make advances in enabling computers to recognize items better. Unlike with people, he said, computers require a lot of information before they can distinguish one thing from another. “It’s not easily solved,” he said.
While the technology behind the store was tricky to develop, the pair admitted one of the most challenging aspects of Amazon Go is the same one their traditional retail counterparts have been dealing with for centuries: attempting to buy the right products for current consumer tastes.
“For Dilip and I, we had been in online for our whole career and we’re used to unlimited shelf space and things like that so the thing that’s changed the most is learning about what customers like, what are they buying, what are their favorite things,” Puerini said. “We’re opposite of a lot of the folks here because the physical retail part is new for us.”
For this they have a slight advantage though, given the digital nature of the transaction. Shoppers are only too happy to use the app to weigh in on what they like and what they could do without.
Given the nature of the store, which focuses on grab-and-go food, the traffic tends to be “spiky” with an influx around breakfast, lunch and dinner times. This concentrated demand means that even in a cashier-free environment, human’s jobs are still plentiful. Puerini said in addition to greeting shoppers and assisting customers, Amazon Go employees are cooking and busy with the never-ending task of keeping the shelves stocked.
Though Puerini and Kumar, say the store has been a hit with shoppers, they said there are no plans for ramping up the Amazon Go fleet—at least none that the company is willing to divulge at this time. And while Whole Foods might seem like the next logical step for the walkout technology, Puerini said that’s not on Amazon’s radar either.
“There are no plans to roll this out to Whole Foods,” Puerini said. “They’re fantastic at what they do and we want them to keep doing it.”
While it’s unknown where the Amazon Go concept might go next, Kumar said for the company, the thrill is in the development process. “It’s spectacular to be able to invent on behalf customers to solve a customer problem,” he said. “If you do it often enough and do it well, that’s where we draw our energy from. How big it gets or how popular it gets, customers get to decide that.”