Amazon Go has shown us the future of retail – and in it, we’re broke and unhealthy. Here’s the fix

  • TECH
  • Sunday, 28 Jan 2018

SEATTLE, WA - JANUARY 22: Shoppers enter and exit the Amazon Go store on January 22, 2018 in Seattle, Washington. After more than a year in beta Amazon opened the cashier-less store to the public. Stephen Brashear/Getty Images/AFP == FOR NEWSPAPERS, INTERNET, TELCOS & TELEVISION USE ONLY ==

You've got the butter, the eggs, the organic salad greens and the laundry soap. The paper towels just fit into that rack underneath the cart. And so you weave your way past the tortilla chips on special and that dude who's still standing in the soda aisle and arrive at the front of the grocery store. 

Which is where you'll face your moment of truth: Which line will it be? Will you roll the dice and step in behind the mom with a wiggly toddler and a brimming cart? Or take your chances with the young couple you spotted arguing over the granola bars in Aisle 3B? 

Better make up your mind, quick. Because, faster than the guy with "just one item" who's about to cut in line, this whole scene is going to disappear. 

This week, in Seattle, Amazon opened its own convenience store. It's the first of its kind: a truly cashless grocery experience in which shoppers enter through gates that look like sleeker subway turnstiles, take what they want from the shelves and exit the way they came. No carts, no lines, no waiting (unless you count the loiterer in the soda aisle – he'll still be there.) 

The store accurately inventories what you take and charges your Amazon account, efficiently delivering an electronic receipt after you've left. Like most things that Amazon does, this smells like inevitability. We know, as surely as we knew the day that first Amazon box showed up on the doorstep, that the future of shopping has arrived. 

Like all progress, it comes at a cost. "Based on data," says Manoj Thomas, a professor of marketing at Cornell University, "we know that when people use any abstract form of payment, they spend more. And the type of products they choose changes too." 

Decades of psychological research has reinforced the knowledge that the further we are removed from the "pain of paying," the less we understand how much we're really spending. "When you come into a store planning to pay with cash," says Thomas, "one of the first things you do is ask yourself 'How much cash do I have? Do I have enough to pay for this?'" Pay with a card, and this calculation disappears. 

So does the calorie count: "If you're buying lettuce or broccoli, it doesn't matter if you are paying with cash or a card, because it's not an impulse purchase. You're going to buy these things no matter what. But if you are standing in front of a cookie or a pie or a doughnut, and you're paying with an abstract method, you're more likely to buy it." 

You might pause to reconsider while you're waiting to check out. Oh, wait. There won't be a checkout line. "If you are paying by credit card," says Thomas, "you might pause at the checkout and suddenly think, 'Should I be buying this?' Or if you are paying cash, that reflection happens at the very beginning. Both will be gone with the Amazon store." 

Unhealthy impulse purchases and overspending will result, he says. "Both are completely related because they are influenced by our impulse urges." 

Is Thomas advocating that we all make a run for the ATM and attempt to turn back time by using grimy, old hard currency? 

"No, no, no," he says. "There are a lot of advantages to cashless transactions. But there is a lot of innovation right now around how to make it easy to spend more money, and not much innovation around helping consumers make good decisions." He envisions a world in which you'll be able to set budget or calorie limits on an app that will recognize when you pick up unhealthy or budget-busting items, and warn you that they fall outside your goals. 

"You could get a red alert to reconsider," he says, and expresses confidence that there is some tech hero out there right now, figuring out this exact solution to keep us all on the straight and narrow. But for the moment, "retailers are not incentivised to enable that technology. Companies are not investing enough in smart technology to help people make good decisions." 

Good thing we'll have all those doughnuts we just bought to console us when we realise that the new retail experience has a cultural cost, too. The grocery store, in its current, quaint incarnation, is a central shared experience – sooner or later, everybody goes to the supermarket. 

Remember way back in 1992 when George "The Old One" Bush got tripped up for marvelling at a supermarket scanner? It proved, better than the details we already knew about his CIA past, his oil business and his compound in Maine, that he was not one of us. We've been watching movies set in supermarkets since Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray plotted a murder in the aisles in Double Indemnity in 1944. Or maybe you remember The Dude writing a check for 69 cents in The Big Lebowski or Philip Marlowe's late-night cat food run in The Long Goodbye. (The cashier warns him that he's left his lights on. He doesn't care.) 

Personally, it's the cashiers I'll miss, both for their ability to provide a little human interaction and because they are privy to a kind of people-watching you can't find anywhere else. 

"If I'm getting toilet paper, gum, a flashlight and asparagus," says Lucie Shelly, a senior editor at literary website Electric Literature, "I'm like, 'What do they think I'm doing with my life?' It's a very intimate moment there." Shelly, who has written about her former life as a Whole Foods cashier, has a vivid memory of the customer who returned every few days to buy "every kind of seaweed chips we had in the store. All of them." 

She also recalls customers who simply looked forward to a moment of recognition or the exchange of a knowing laugh over an extra carton of ice cream. Today, she says, "I do a lot of my work remotely, and so the only interaction I may have in a day might be with whoever is ringing me up. I don't think we should discount those micro-interactions." 

It's fun to see other humans, even as technology is moving quickly to rid us of most of our problems, like stressful supermarket lines. But until it steps in to check those impulses that will doom us to exiting the Amazon Go store with a week's pay in chocolate chip cookies, there's an old-timey, analogue solution: "Research has shown that when you shop with a list, you spend less and make better choices," says Thomas. "Just make a shopping list." — The Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service

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