Amazon Fresh – the future of shopping?

By 10 November 2021New technology, News
Amazon Fresh store, Canary Wharf, London

Whilst in London to see a new client we took the opportunity to visit the much talked about Amazon Fresh store in Canary Wharf. This is the new checkout-less store and possibly the future of shopping. No tills, no scanning areas, just walk out like you’re a shoplifter. But how does it work?

Nestled between skyscraper office blocks, it looks much like any other convenience food store from the outside. Apart from the puzzling ‘Just walk out shopping’ window graphics. On entry you open your Amazon app (so yes, for starters you need to be an Amazon consumer already), get a fresh QR code and scan that at the entry gates inside.

A new way of shopping

At this stage, the Amazon store knows who you are. You may see a few humans in Amazon uniforms, a skeleton staff to help out confused people (it’s a new experience for most) and restock shelves (til the robots arrive, presumably). Once you’re in, it’s pretty much normal shopping – aisles and shelves of familiar food and household products, clear signage and pricing and so on.

Just put whatever you need into your bag, and if you decide you don’t want something after all, simply return that item to the shelf. Hundreds of AI-driven cameras and sensors follow your movement around the store, identifying what you’ve picked up or put back. That alone is some pretty amazing technology. If you visit, look at all those little black boxes above you.

Fancy a coffee? Some fresh bakery products? Grab those too and it’ll all be taken care of. So no barcode reading there, no microchips inside the croissants. Sorry to disappoint all you conspiracy theorists!

Just walk out

Once you’re done with your shopping, you quite literally just walk out. No checkouts, no human interaction with cashiers, no scanning machines, no temperamental bagging areas. Amazon’s hi-tech brain behind the scenes knows what you’ve taken, and you’ll soon find a receipt in your app detailing your purchases like any other shop receipt. Yes, you feel like a shoplifter, but of course they’ve charged you, having already identified what you’ve placed in your bag while you’ve been wandering the aisles.

A note on prices. Presumably due to the lower overheads – fewer staff long term – some products were around two-thirds the price of what we’re used to seeing in the major supermarkets. Excuse our bad habits but we particularly noticed the bottled beer and chocolate bargains.

AI & cameras

We can’t help feeling that if this new way of buying your groceries does take off, the prices will creep up once the novelty has worn off and there is more footfall. We believe it very possibly is the future of shopping.

There’s some impressive technology and artificial intelligence going on here. Quite apart from the knowing who you are, what you’ve bought, how to charge you and so on, just think of the marketing value – you’re literally being tracked as you move around the aisles. Amazon are getting very detailed data on consumer shopping habits, for free, admittedly after presumably a hell of a lot of R&D investment. Then add in the potential facial recognition and other physical appearance data gathered and so on. That’s some shopper profiling.

Don’t forget humanity

However, we’re not so impressed that Amazon Fresh is fresh progress in the gradual removal of human staff from our shops. The increasingly common habit of shops forcing customers to scan their own shopping using self-serve tills is bad enough, but this is self-service on steroids. Yes, AI and robots and all that futuristic tech stuff is cool, but let’s not wipe out human interaction.

Older generations are surely going to struggle with this new method of shopping. They like the human interaction aspect of weekly shopping – some need it – and they’re likely to struggle with the technology. But that demographic probably isn’t Amazon’s target market. They’ll be aiming at those whose mobile phone is already an extension of their arm, not the oldies that forget to take it out with them let alone switch it on. Let’s call them the Fresh generation.