Why Amazon Go presages a new era of smart supermarkets

Will grocery cashiers become obsolete as automation takes over? Amazon Go is headed in that direction.

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Over the past few years, we have seen self-checkout machines being used in our grocery stores. As a result, analysts wonder whether the grocery store clerk may become entirely supplanted by machinery. Amazon appears to be betting that will be the case with its Amazon Go store, a cashier-free store that relies on apps and cameras to account for what customers purchase.

For now, Amazon Go is only in a beta stage, as the single Seattle store is only open to Amazon employees and focuses more on ready-to-eat meals instead of produce. But Amazon Go, along with Amazon’s effort at creating its own physical bookstores in Amazon Books, are signs of how retail could dramatically change with the advent of technology. Amazon Go and computers could change how supermarkets are run, the food that goes in them, and by changing our supermarkets could change how our cities and towns are built.

A cashier-less (but not worker-less) supermarket

The idea behind a supermarket like Amazon Go is quite simple and comparable to how the technology behind self-driving cars. When a customer enters, a camera tracks the customers, their hands, and what they take and put on a virtual shelf. When the customer has selected his fill of items and leaves, Amazon will then charge their Amazon account and send a receipt.

As USA Today notes, tech companies have dreamed about building a cashier-less supermarket for some time and IBM released a 2006 video where they talked about how RFID could make such a store. But Amazon has come closer than any other towards making this dream a reality.

Using cameras to track what customers purchase could be used for other kinds of stores as well, and Amazon could license this technology systems so that it would not have to go through the work of setting and maintain physical stores itself. However, Amazon seems interested in building those stores as it works on integrating both online and offline shopping. While it is building physical grocery stores in Amazon Go, it is improving its online grocery delivery system in Amazon Fresh as it hopes that online grocery shopping could become as accepted in the future as online clothing shopping has become recently.

Some people may wonder whether developing both Amazon Go and Amazon Fresh could see the two conflict with one another, but what Amazon sees is the possibility of integrating both online and offline shopping. Think about how Amazon and online stores remember your past purchases and can make recommendations based on your history. You could make initial purchases online in your home where a digital display could put items in your cart which you buy regularly and remind you to purchase ingredients like toilet paper if you are running low. Then you can head down to the grocery store, find the goods which you ordered waiting for you, and pick up any other spare odds and ends. This entire process could be done without ever encountering a cashier or another worker.

Human workers will still be necessary, as an Amazon Go store will still need supervisors to track for mistakes by the cameras, organize and stock wares, and manage the store. But the day may soon be here when we view the human cashier as our age’s equivalent of the saddle maker.

Solving an environmental problem

The Amazon Go system has more potential benefits beyond making shopping more convenient for consumers. They can help out businesses and protect the environment by battling the problem of food waste.

Because consumers cannot abide the idea of a shortage and want the best looking produce, grocery stores both massively overstock their aisles and discard perfectly edible products which have small, unappealing bumps or bruises. The result is that millions of pounds of good food are thrown into the trash. Businesses have to waste money buying extra food which no one will buy and farmers are pressured into overproducing food which causes them to use more pesticides, deplete the soil, and hurt the environment.

But with technology and data, food wastage can be lessened. As supermarkets gather data about what each of their customers purchase through Amazon’s tracking technology, that will let them better determine how to stock their goods appropriately to fit individual consumer needs. Furthermore, data can also be used to market and price these somewhat damaged goods more efficiently, encouraging customers to purchase them and reduce waste.

Where Amazon leads, others are likely to follow. The company has already set the blueprint for online retail, which has been quickly copied by multiple startups using free domain names to gain an online presence. Now we are seeing the use of internet technology, specifically the internet of things, to revolutionize traditional bricks and mortar stores.

The future store is here

Amazon Go is still in a beta stage, and there are no guarantees that it will be anything more than an interesting experiment. But it is clear that as technology evolves, supermarkets and retail stores will adapt accordingly.

The human cashier may be replaced by the check-out screen, but it in turn could also be replaced where customers will no longer even need to wait at a line to purchase goods. The result will be a more efficient system where shopping becomes greener and more tailored to our individual needs.

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