Samantha Yu decided to do a little Amazon-themed sightseeing during her visit to Seattle from Vancouver for a business trip on Monday. She walked by the famous Amazon spheres (which will soon be open to the public), then half a block further to the new Amazon Go store, in the heart of the e-retailer’s booming neighborhood at the northern edge of downtown Seattle. On its opening day, the cashier-free convenience store was buzzing with journalists and rubberneckers.
To enter, Yu downloaded the Amazon Go app and held her phone up to a scanner. She picked up a sandwich and a chocolate bar, then just walked out. A few seconds later, a receipt for her purchase materialized in her phone.
Amazon Go is built around eliminating the inconvenience of the checkout line. The idea is simple, but the execution requires enormous data-crunching resources. Instead of workers manning cash registers, it has banks upon banks of tiny cameras that constantly monitor the world within the store, and all who enter it. Every time you pick up a banana or a can of soda, Amazon Go knows.
The first Amazon Go pilot store opened last year for employees only, but only let the general public in this week. It’s not yet clear what the company plans to do with the model; based upon the wave of disruption Amazon brought down upon bookstores (and then practically every other kind of store), you’d be forgiven for suspecting them of wanting to force corner stores and delis out of business. But it’s important to remember that Amazon profits more these days from selling data storage and data processing in the cloud than it does selling physical goods. This, more than anything else, may explain Amazon’s fascination with small brick-and-mortar stores: It’s about demonstrating a new technology, not carving profits out of candy bars and energy drinks.
Wherever Amazon Go is heading, Bill Ingram does not like it. He stood outside Amazon Go with a friend, holding a hand-painted banner that read “YOUR FUTURE IS TOTAL SHIT.” What will all the cashiers do, he asked, once their jobs are automated? “One by one, they’ll eliminate all these little jobs,” he explained. “If people like that future, I guess they can jump into it. But to me, it seems pretty bleak.”
Ingram’s anxious about the surveillance technology, too. He wore a mask for this protest, because of all the cameras and facial recognition technology around here. He said most people are just dazzled by the technology, without thinking through the consequences.
In a statement, Amazon emphasized that automation was actually creating work, listing the jobs human Amazon associates do still do inside the store: “Working in the kitchen and the store, prepping ingredients, making breakfast, lunch and dinner items, greeting customers at the door, stocking shelves and helping customers,” read the statement. I counted around two dozen people working there on opening day, in a space no bigger than a gas station convenience store.
To Amazonians, it’s evidence of what many of them deeply believe: There is nothing to fear from automation. “We look at robotics and automation as a way to make roles more efficient, so that our employees can shift their focus to a more sophisticated task,” Amazon spokesperson Nina Lindsey told me recently on a tour of Amazon’s warehouse in Kent, Washington.
One sophisticated job created when cashiers go away is the job of managing the hardware systems, the software systems, and the flow of data into the cloud. The challenge is that out-of-work cashiers aren’t likely to be qualified for that sort of work. Other critics have voiced other concerns about the prospect of robotic convenience stores: Amazon Go doesn’t accept food stamps, as Slate reported, and requiring all patrons to download a smartphone app linked to a credit card amounts to another kind of barrier erected against low-income shoppers.
I returned to Amazon Go to buy a sandwich for myself. As I walked out, I instinctively looked around for someone to share the moment with. Perhaps it’s habit; like most of us, I’m accustomed to exchanging pleasantries with a cashier. It’s such a minor step, but I like sealing the shopping experience in that way.
The person I finally made eye contact with wasn’t a cashier, but the greeter at the door who monitors access to the store. He was too busy for chit-chat, so I gave him a little nod.
“People—they want to talk with somebody,” Jisook Shin told me, when I stopped by at the NYC Deli a couple blocks away to get a cashier’s take on Amazon Go. Amid the impersonal bustle of city life, cashiers provide people with an opportunity to forge a brief human connection.
Was that look over my shoulder as I left Amazon Go some vestigial habit or evidence of a deep human need? That’s something that all of Amazon’s in-store cameras cannot see.