Amazon’s Most Ambitious Research Project Is a Convenience Store

Amazon has set up 14 Amazon Go stores in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle. They do not have any cash registers so once customers have scanned a screen from a special app on their phone at the entrance, they just grab their items and walk out the door, while Amazon magically charges their credit card. By all accounts, the company intends to open more of these stores in the months and years ahead. Bloomberg Businessweek reports today the kind of investment Amazon has made into these stores — it is the ecommerce firm’s most ambitious research project to date — but despite that, how these stores are just like 7-Eleven stores, but with more complexity and cost.

From the report: From a technological perspective, the Go stores are a marvel — a succinct demonstration of Amazon’s capacity to devote vast resources toward applying the state of the art in artificial intelligence to an everyday problem. They also illustrate the company’s tendency to pursue technology for technology’s sake (see: the Fire Phone), resulting in a store that offers all the selection of a 7-Eleven, but with more complexity and cost. Scores of cameras pointed at all angles hang from the ceilings to track shoppers as they wander the aisles, while precise scales embedded in the shelves tabulate products down to the gram to figure out which ones have been picked up. Behind the scenes, sophisticated image recognition algorithms decide who took what — with Amazon workers in offices available to review footage to ensure shoppers are accurately charged. Each store also has a local staff on hand to help people download the Go app, restock shelves, and, in locations with a liquor section, check IDs.

Will all this work be worth it? Some Go stores seem almost deserted except for the lunchtime rush. Employees familiar with Amazon’s internal projections say the outlets in Chicago, in particular, are falling short of expectations, and the company has had to resort to raffles and giveaways of tote bags and other branded goodies. Yet, as the turbulent history of the project suggests, the Go store isn’t so much the culmination of the company’s efforts but something closer to an ongoing experiment. And the potential prize — a big piece of the $12 trillion grocery industry — is one that Amazon, with its limitless resources and appetite for risk, may be in the best position to claim.

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