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The technology outsmarting me seems appropriate for a shop whose current selling point is that technology will replace the human cashiers.

Naomi Tomky
January 24, 2018

On Tuesday morning, I spent ten minutes and 51 seconds inside Amazon Go, the new convenience store without a checkout counter in Seattle. I know this because by the time I reached my car, a block away, the app notified me of how long I spent inside the store—but not how much I spent. Since checking out just means leaving—letting the technology tally up your goods and charge your credit card—that meant that to actually learn I spent $12.00, I had to open the app and check. (To be fair, I also received an email with the info, but not for another couple hours—after I’d already sat down to write about the experience.)

The store sits in the shadow of the giant glass spheres that have become symbols of Amazon’s campus and this part of Seattle’s rapid development. Having heard rumors of long (but quick) lines on opening day, it threw me a little to be able to walk right up to the door. Where the line would have been—and the retractable line dividers still stood—glass windows looked in from the sidewalk to the kitchen. A surprising amount of the store space features ready-made meals: grab-and-go type soups, sandwiches and salads. And here, outside the store, passersby can watch people making them. They are, it seems, the only employees who will be needed beyond the initial ramp up.

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I can’t imagine that the duo handing out free bright-orange branded tote bags and making sure everyone has downloaded the Amazon Go app before they go in will have the same job once people are used to the system. I had not downloaded the app, so I shuffle into a corner of the entrance way and wait while my phone downloads it. Thankfully my Amazon password transfers to the app, because I have no idea what my Amazon password is. Somehow, the technology outsmarting me seems appropriate for a shop whose current selling point is that technology will replace the human cashiers.

I open the app and scan through the electronic turnstile. (Is it still a turnstile if it doesn’t actually turn?). Inside, the store has the light-wood décor of an upscale grocery. The wall straight ahead—the largest display—contains only ready-to-eat and pre-made meals, mostly from the kitchen I passed outside, plus a few from other vendors (Panera soups, sandwiches from a local bagel store). The meals are relatively inexpensive. I pick up a steak one with potatoes, asparagus, and salsa verde for $8.49. Other options include berbere chicken and lentils, and a tofu grain bowl. I heat it up later for lunch. It’s as good as microwaved steak can be.

“But how does it work?” a man asks an employee re-stocking the shelves. It’s a question I hear people ask over and over in my not-quite 11 minutes in the store. “There are cameras everywhere,” another person whispers. Most of the people shopping there seem, like me, to be there for the novelty factor. This could be, at least in part, because the likely consumer (for this location anyway) has had access for months: while the store just opened to the public, it’s old news for Amazon employees.

Around a corner, I notice a few bags of Whole Foods-brand snacks, and a back wall holding giant boxes with meal kits. But otherwise it seems to have standard—though upscale—convenience store ingredients: more Coolhaus Ice Cream sandwiches than Klondike bars. I stuff a Diet Coke and some Goldfish crackers in my bag, which are in keeping with the convenience store theme but don’t seem to be there for the target audience, judging from the single-serving containers of paleo-friendly, simply-cooked protein, the trendy wine-in-a-can and the entire row devoted to Halo Top.

Also pretty clearly not the target audience is anyone poor—in fact, they seem distinctly excluded from a shopping experience that requires a smartphone and credit card and doesn’t accept food stamps. Not much of an issue here on Amazon’s campus, where an overwhelming majority of the customers are likely Amazon’s well-paid tech employees, but a worrying thought should Amazon expand the concept—and push out competition.

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And the big deal about the store, the feature that drew lines, inspired media (that’s me) to come check it out, and the whole concept that everybody has an opinion on—the part where I walk out of the store without waiting in line, without visiting a cashier, without having to throttle one of those annoying self-checkout machines? It was anti-climactic. Without a register or counter, exiting was seamless. I didn’t feel like shoplifting because there was nothing sneaky to do. I just sort of left.

Back home, I popped open my Diet Coke ($0.69 for a can, quite reasonable). It tasted the same as any other Diet Coke. Only I got it more quickly, because I didn’t have to stand in line to pay. Which, I suppose is the point, once we all get over the technology shift: it wins on price and convenience, the same two weapons Amazon has wielded for two decades, starting with books. Remember when Amazon just sold books?