Five Questions You Should Have About Amazon’s New AI-Powered Store

Will it destroy retail as we know it? Is it spying on you? Will it weaken your resolve not to buy that $8 gourmet chocolate bar?

Is this the future of grocery shopping? (Wikipedia)
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No lines. No cashiers. No swiping your credit card. At Amazon Go, the online retailer's new automated convenience store in Seattle, you enter by scanning your phones at a turnstile. Once inside, hundreds of cameras track your movements, working with in-shelf weight sensors to determine which products you’ve taken and which you’ve only looked at. Then you simply walk out the door. The store bills your Amazon account and sends you your receipt later.

Will this be the future of retail? And if it is, what does that mean for workers, customers and the retail industry? We’ve chatted with experts to answer the top five questions you should have about Amazon Go.

Are you more likely to spend more money at a “just walk out” store like Amazon Go?

In a word, yes.

“When you don’t have contact with your money when you’re spending, then you’re more likely to spend more and purchase more impulsively,” says Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and professor emerita at Golden Gate University.

A number of studies show that the more distanced a consumer is from their actual money, the more likely they are to overspend, Yarrow says. This is true of credit cards versus cash, and many experts believe it’s true of contactless payment systems like Apple Pay over other forms of payment, though there’s not yet much research on the issue. So it certainly stands to reason that buying things without even needing to touch your wallet or phone makes shoppers think even less about the money they’re spending.

Should we worry about privacy?

Depends on how you feel about privacy.

Amazon Go likely collects "more information than any retail setting out there now,” Alvaro Bedoya, the executive director of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown University's law school, told the Washington Post. Exactly what information is collected is unclear. Amazon has held details about how the technology works close to its chest.

But will this matter to consumers?

“I think if folks were that concerned about privacy they should put their smartphones away,” says Tushar Patel, chief marketing officer at Kibo Commerce, a company that helps stores integrate their online and physical approach to retail. “There’s not a single thing you do these days that’s not being tracked.”

Unnerving as this sounds, it’s basically true. Despite Americans’ lack of confidence in online security, we continue to become more reliant on technology.

Patel says he’d worry less about Amazon Go’s tracking and more about shoring up your online passwords and being more careful about what you share on social media. In any case, he doesn’t think privacy concerns will stop many people.

“Consumers will pick experiences over privacy any time,” he says.

Will people be more likely to shoplift if there are few or no employees in a store?

Maybe.

Most people won’t steal no matter what the circumstance, Yarrow says. But people are more likely to steal the less they have to deal with other humans.

“People have a problem with stealing from people, even if that person is just an employee,” she says. “People don’t have as much of a problem with stealing from things.”

Studies have shown that people are more likely to steal at self-checkout kiosks than at cashier lanes, and researchers hypothesize that it’s not just that they’re less afraid of getting caught, it’s also that they feel less guilty.

However, the same research suggests that reducing anonymity reduces the risk of theft, and Amazon Go shoppers are all identified by their Amazon accounts. Plus, all the cameras mean shoplifting would be technically difficult, as more than one writer has already discovered. "The system is very accurate," Dilip Kumar, Amazon Go's technology vice president, told the Los Angeles Times.

Is there a downside to this lack of human interaction?

“The more contact we have with other human beings, the better the world is, even if it’s just a gas station attendant or a store clerk,” says Yarrow. “This is how we form communities, in these seemingly inconsequential interactions.”

But while Baby Boomers like a little human interaction with their shopping experience, Millennials mostly claim not to, Yarrow says.

“The younger they are, the less they want to have contact with people when they’re shopping,” she says.

Patel disagrees that Amazon Go is the end of face-to-face interaction. He says Amazon Go is only one example of the concept of “seamlessness” that is at the cutting edge of contemporary retail. Seamlessness means integration of your digital and physical lives. In Amazon Go’s case this means being able to physically shop for groceries using the same identity and easy payment system you use when buying books or paper towels or scuba gear on Amazon.com. But seamlessness can take many forms, and not all forms involve excluding humans. A store might, for example, personalize your shopping experience by tracking customers from their websites into the physical world.

“Imagine walking into the store and having the sales associate knowing exactly what you looked at online, so when you walk into the store you can continue your journey,” Patel says.

That way the salesperson can instantly guide you towards, say, the perfect pair of jeans.

Does this mean cashiers and baggers should start polishing their resumés?

Maybe.

Not all customers are willing to be “observed and audited in an ongoing monitoring system,” says Michael Kasavana, a professor emeritus at the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University. This means even if Amazon Go-style stores become extremely popular, there will still likely always be traditional stores to cater to dissenters (even if, as Patel believes, they are small in number).

In addition, stores will still need people to restock shelves (until drones are up to the task) and check IDs for alcohol and tobacco purchases. Amazon itself claims Amazon Go will not kill retail jobs, noting that it still has human employees preparing food and helping customers.

Patel says that while traditional retail positions like cashier and bagger may become fewer, “this new type of consumer experience is driving new types of jobs.”

These jobs include e-commerce positions, data analysts and store associates whose job it is to enhance customers’ experience. 

So fear not, until the robots come for us all

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