CHICAGO: Amazon's cashierless stores are designed to spare time-crunched shoppers from waiting in the checkout line.
But when Chicago's first Amazon Go store opened on a Monday morning, most shoppers were taking their time to browse the selection and get used to the idea of a store that lets you grab your purchases and leave without formally paying.
“It felt a little weird, but I like the concept,” Bill Termunde, 32, of Chicago's Beverly neighbourhood, said between bites of a breakfast sandwich he'd picked up, along with three Clif bars.
The e-commerce giant spent more than a year testing the cashierless convenience store concept with company employees in Seattle before opening the first Amazon Go to the public in January. The 2,000-square-foot Chicago store – the company's fourth and the first outside its hometown – will be open from 7am to 8pm weekdays at 113 S. Franklin St., on the first floor of the complex where Amazon's Chicago office is located.
Customers must scan an app on their smartphone on the way in to let the store know they've arrived. Cameras and other sensors track shoppers as they browse and add items to a virtual cart as customers take them off shelves.
Amazon automatically charges customers' accounts when they leave. A sign on the wall calls it “just walk out shopping”.
Critics fear the technology is an attempt to run stores with fewer employees. Gianna Puerini, vice president of Amazon Go, said getting rid of traditional checkout wasn't about eliminating workers, but rather getting rid of part of the bricks-and-mortar shopping experience most customers wouldn't miss – particularly the time-crunched professionals working near its store in the Loop.
“I don't know a ton of people who say, 'I love the part where I wait in line and they ring up all my stuff',” she said.
Puerini declined to say how many people the store employs, but she said Amazon Go still needs workers to take deliveries, stock shelves and help customers.
On Monday morning, orange-shirted Amazon Go employees at times outnumbered customers. Several stationed near the door helped shoppers download the store's app, reassured those who hesitated before leaving that they really could just walk out and showed customers where to find their receipts to verify they'd been charged for the right items.
Amazon Go carries grab-and-go sandwiches, salads and snacks you might find at a grocery store, along with packaged convenience store fare. Some fresh items, delivered daily, are made by Amazon off-site and some are prepared by local companies like Fairgrounds, Farmer's Fridge and I Love Sweets.
There is no hot prepared food, in part because of the focus on eliminating lines, but there are ready-to-heat items and two microwaves on-site. There's also a section with two-person meal kits designed to be prepared in about 30 minutes, aimed at people who want to pick up dinner on the way home from the office.
Branden Laxner, 31, of River North, said he liked the focus on keeping trips quick. Laxner, who works in the building where the Amazon Go store is located, said he usually isn't looking to browse and knows what he wants in advance. On Monday, that was a bottle of cold brew coffee and a protein bar.
“I know there's implications on the labour side, but sometimes you just want to get in and get out without having someone looking over your shoulder,” he said.
But to eliminate the checkout line, the store does rely on a network of cameras keeping an eye on customers and store shelves. The cameras, in black boxes along the ceiling, work with sensors on the shelves to determine which items belong in which shoppers' carts.
Amazon isn't the only retailer trying to automate the checkout process. Many chains offer self-checkout, and retailers like Sam's Club eliminated the register with apps that let customers scan items as they walk through the store.
But Amazon wanted to find a way to do it without any extra steps on the customer's part, said Dilip Kumar, vice president of technology for Amazon Go and Amazon Books.
“Every time we have removed a little bit of friction, it has always paid dividends,” he said.
Puerini declined to say how often the system makes an error _ she would say only that it is “highly accurate”. But Kumar said the number of people the store can handle is limited by fire codes, not the technology's ability to keep up. If customers do spot an extra item on their receipt, they can request a refund through the Amazon Go app.
The Amazon Go stores aren't the company's only experiment with bricks-and-mortar retail. The company, which began as an online bookseller, now has several bookstores around the country, including one on Southport Avenue in Chicago's Lakeview neighbourhood. Amazon also acquired Whole Foods Market last year.
Those forays into bricks-and-mortar retail are on top of Amazon's home delivery options. Puerini said the company wants to give customers options and let them choose which works best in different circumstances.
Amazon has been pleased with customers' response to the cashierless store in Seattle, but she said it's too soon to speculate on how big the network of stores may one day be, or whether Amazon Go technology could one day show up in other parts of Amazon's retail network.
Eliminating a few minutes at checkout isn't as compelling an idea in Amazon's bookstores, where people expect to browse and linger, Kumar said.
Even at Amazon Go, speed wasn't the biggest selling point for every shopper. Jeff Bergstein, 48, who decided to check out the store with John Luedtke, 51, on their morning commute from Northbrook, first commented on prices that struck him as relatively reasonable for the Loop.
Luedtke, who picked up a Kind bar and orange juice, said he liked that it seemed to have a good selection of healthy options.
“I don't know if people would come more than once just for the payment process, but if the quality is good, it's convenient,” he said.
The company intends to open Amazon Go stores in New York and San Francisco, but Puerini declined to comment further on expansion plans. The Tribune previously reported that Amazon was planning Amazon Go stores in Willis Tower and an office building connected to Ogilvie Transportation Center.
“This is our first (Amazon Go) store outside Seattle, and the only store in Chicago. We're going to wait and see what we learn,” Puerini said. – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service