Boring commerce is here (and it’s awesome): my experience with Amazon Go

My takeaway: Amazon Go is a great example of how tech can take us away from screens and back into the real world.

On a typical winter Monday in Seattle, downtown streets were dotted with people in their waterproof gear, umbrellas in hand, out of necessity for dodging raindrops. Most are smart enough to stay indoors on days like this. However, as I turn down 7th Avenue toward the Amazon Spheres, the environment on the street looks more like a street fair than a dreary day. Because this isn’t any typical Monday in Seattle. This is the grand public opening of the newest retail innovation the planet has ever seen. This is Amazon Go’s launch day.

As I approached, no less than four orange-jacketed Amazon Go ambassadors greeted me. They must have been bored as the long wait lines that (ironically) formed for a line-free, hassle-free shop like Amazon Go had receded.

The line for the line-free shop. (Thanks, Business Insider)

“Hello!” they said. “Hi! Do you have the app?” “Come on in!” People were even taking selfies outside the store and asking ambassadors to take some pictures with their friends and family — not the typical experience at other high-end mini-marts. (Although, certainly, no store like this has ever been launched to the public.)

While the circus atmosphere outside was a bit overwhelming, things calmed down inside. Upon entry, I was handed an orange tote bag and instructed to “just put whatever you want in the bag and walk out.” As instructed, I scanned in the QR code from my Amazon Go app I downloaded earlier today and started to shop.

The most interesting part of the experience was that, honestly, it felt downright boring. But that’s precisely what Amazon had tried to achieve — the pinnacle of frictionless, grab-and-truly-go shopping — and everything worked seamlessly for me. (Of course, others got a free yogurt out of the deal.)

Honestly, it felt downright boring. But that’s precisely what Amazon had tried to achieve.

Amazon has achieved what we at Fjord identified as one of our top trends of 2018: digital is no longer the centerpiece of brand experience. Today, it’s all about how best to shift emphasis onto digital as an invisible enabler of physical and sensory experiences. In fact, we’re seeing a growing number of primarily digital brands, like Airbnb and Alibaba (along with Amazon), place greater emphasis on physical presence while making the most of digital and data to improve experience. With Amazon Go, Amazon has created a transparent network of technology, with computer vision and advanced machine learning, not to replace or supplement the physical retail environment, but to make it more human and more seamless than ever before.

Interacting with a physical store rather than the device seems like a left-turn for a technology company like Amazon, until you consider Amazon’s driving mantra for all their innovations: true customer obsession. How better to deliver this vision in grab-and-truly-go shopping than to make the “interface” for this amazing tech a standard-looking mini-mart? This brilliant move allows customers to interact with the products versus their screens, melding into a convergent technology and physical experience where the tech, while clearly present, is nearly transparent.

Subtle, black boxes drive the future of boring commerce. (Thanks, New York Times)

The Amazon Go app never pinged me about deals or specials while I was in the store. No suggestions as of yet have showed up on Amazon.com for items I purchased (or, didn’t purchase) while I was at Amazon Go. This was one of the most advanced technology stacks I have ever experienced, and the “user interface” was the grocery haul I was putting into my orange Amazon Go bag.

So, how does it all work? It’s a well-guarded secret, but Amazon’s patent filings and their Amazon Go Terms and Conditions point to some clues. Amazon calls their innovation “Just Walk Out” technology, consisting of intelligent surveillance, computer vision, deep learning algorithms, and sensor fusion. They take in a lot of data, including past purchase history, to make sure they know what products you put in your bag. It’s all very sophisticated and creepy, like a bot net is watching your every move. I felt the presence of the technology at first, looking up at the ceiling dotted with sensors and cameras all painted flat black. But this quickly receded into the background as I browsed the store and shopped. Given the lines that formed for the opening, I suspect few felt turned off by the massive surveillance effort.

A ceiling full of surveillance

Of course, not everything was perfect. Stocking was clunky, with an employee pulling a hand truck with bulky crates that blocked some of the shelves. But, I imagine this like the Amazon warehouses, will be automated one day. The loss of human labor is one consequence that will likely need to be addressed. So far, it seems that Amazon is approaching it in the standard way many companies do when addressing efficiency through automation and technology: essentially, “we aren’t losing employees; they’re freed from the mundane tasks to do things more challenging and useful.” That being said, just how the 3.5 million grocery store cashiers in the US will be affected (or not) remains to be seen.

The boring exit of the future (Thanks, Mercury News)

When I finished shopping, I walked out through the metro-style gates, with the same delightfully boring lack of fanfare that described the whole experience. This remarkable and deeply penetrating tech stack that may automate millions of jobs out of existence (but bring about new ones and new ways for machines and humans to collaborate), four years in the making, said goodbye with just the softest mechanical sound of a glass panel.

I walked out into the rain with the conclusion that all retail needs to meet this new standard: be boring, make the physical space the interface, and focus on how tech can take us away from screens and back into the real world.