Offering customers a swath of eats with a side of futuristic tech and that signature Amazon touch, Amazon Go is the e-commerce giant's latest attempt to pull dining-out dollars away from restaurants. The so-called c-store of the future, which opened to the public earlier this week, is focused squarely on food, selling a host of customizable to-go options as well as meal kits customers can prepare at home themselves. On the heels of Amazon Go’s big opening, Jackson Lewis, technology editor for Restaurant Business sister publication CSP, flew to Seattle to experience the store and look restaurants’ new competitor in the eyes. Read on for his report.
After visiting Amazon Go, the recently opened smart convenience store, there is no doubt in my mind that this is the future of physical shopping. Everything is so clean, easy and direct that it doesn’t even feel like shopping. It’s dizzyingly simple.
When approaching the store, the first thing I noticed was the kitchen that passersby can look into from the street. From the theater of at least three employees chopping ingredients, to a kitchen filled with stainless-steel countertops and appliances, the store sends a message that it offers more than just packaged goods.
As I neared the door, an Amazon employee handed me a bright orange, reusable bag and checked to make sure I had the app, through which all my purchases would be made, and knew how to enter and use the store. Seeing the camera around my neck and the 10 minutes I spent taking photos outside, the employee handed me a nondescript business card directing me to a nondescript Amazon public relations email—no fuss, no muss.
Entering the store, I was greeted by another employee near the turnstiles who is there to answer questions and make sure customer entrances go smoothly. A security guard stood silently by, as well.
When I entered, I tried to swipe the QR code on my phone along the sensor on the turnstile. I did this out of muscle memory, because this is the action I take to get into my office at work. But all I had to do was hold the phone above the sensor for a moment. Then I was welcomed inside as the glass doors slid open and a cheery chime sang from the turnstile.
Before going through the turnstiles, customers can turn left and enter a small dining area with a few seats, some microwave ovens, plastic cutlery, napkins and areas for trash and recycling.
Everything in the store is surrounded by technology, but it doesn’t feel that way. Unless visitors look up to inspect the black-box sensors dotting the ceiling, it almost seems like any other store.
The videos online make Amazon Go’s interior seem much bigger than it is in reality. I suspect much of the 1,800 square feet of store is taken up by the kitchen in the back. The store is brightly lit with warm light. The signage is all black, gray or orange. The colors really pop.
Directly across from the turnstile entrance is a grab-and-go section with premade meals and snacks. There are sandwiches, wraps, salads and more lining the wall. Tucked away in one corner to the left are shelves of candy and other sweet packaged snacks, along with bottled water and other packaged beverages.
Meal kits and more
To the right of the entrance, an endcap displays Amazon-branded mugs, reusable water bottles and more. Just to the left of the Amazon endcap are shelves that exclusively hold snacks from Whole Foods Market, Amazon's supermarket chain. Beyond this, packed into a corner of the shop near the entrance to the kitchen, is a small but well-stocked area of beer and wine. There is no liquor. There is a low partition separating this section from the rest of the store, and an employee stands at a post to check IDs and ensure no one underage takes any alcohol.
The right side of the shop also includes meal kits. Meals available to purchase and prepare at home include a salmon donburi bowl, za’atar chicken, parmesan pork loin and falafel patties. The meals seem similar to options from meal-kit provider Hello Fresh.
Finally, the right side of the store also holds miscellaneous packaged snacks, ranging from chips and salsa to granola bars and crackers.
Overall, the product assortment resembles that of a health-focused grocery store more than most convenience stores. There are no auto-care items, no electronic products, no ATM, no lottery and no car wash. It’s just customers, food and cameras watching your every move.
A diverse crowd
The customers varied widely during my 45-minute visit. Some were clearly locals, but it was hard to tell if the clientele was mostly locals or tourists. One customer stopped an employee and mentioned that he was not charged the city's sugary-drink tax last time he visited and purchased a soda. The employee said the store doesn’t charge the soda tax. The customer was happy but incredulous.
Most of those perusing the store weren’t there to shop. Like me, they were there to take everything in. One man was video chatting with his daughter on his phone as he stood in the center of the store, slowly spun around to give the camera a view of everything and said, “This is the future,” more to himself than to his daughter.
The employees manning Amazon Go were friendly, and happy to answer any of my questions about how the store works. But when I asked about anything more specific, like the number of employees or how sales are doing, I was handed another business card and told to wait for a public relations representative who never materialized.
Technically at Amazon Go, there are no returns, only refunds. If the store charges something to a customer’s account by accident—or even if a customer decides he or she doesn’t want an item anymore—customers can simply swipe left on their receipt in the Amazon Go app and opt to receive a refund.
To properly test Amazon Go’s sensors and cameras, I took a box of crackers off the shelf and placed it back four or five times before ultimately placing it in my bag and taking it with me. Minutes after leaving the store, I received a notification on my phone through the Amazon Go app that my receipt was ready to view.
The notification told me exactly how long I spent in the store, which was a little creepy. And even after I had tried my best to fool the system into thinking I didn’t take those crackers, the system was not fooled. There were the crackers at the top of my receipt.