Treat this as a palate cleanser if you like but it’s big news if the idea can be replicated in a cost-effective way, especially at supermarkets where checkout times can get long. Amazon’s replacing the checkout concept with check-in: You wave your phone at the sensor as you enter the store, alerting it to your presence, and then the store itself somehow tracks what you’re pulling off the shelves. How it does that is unclear; obviously it’s sensing more than just your phone as you approach the shelf, or else it would get confused when two shoppers are both pulling items off the same shelf at the same time. Once you’ve got what you want, you just … leave. No line. No credit card swipe. Just walk out with your stuff. Your Amazon account will be charged.
What makes this newsy, in light of the Carrier deal and Trump building a great big beautiful protectionist wall to keep U.S. businesses in, is what the store lacks — namely, workers. You’ll need a few people to keep the shelves stocked and maybe someone wandering around to answer questions and help with any tech issues, but you don’t need cashiers or bagboys. Since the shelves can sense inventory, you might not need anyone to keep track of that either. Once self-driving trucks are introduced in a few years, you won’t even need drivers to deliver the goods from Amazon’s warehouse to the store. Trump spent Sunday morning on Twitter ranting about outsourcing but automation is the deeper threat to America’s work force, especially in transportation. Libertarian Justin Amash asks the inevitable question:
Should the govt allow a company to use more advanced technology without retribution or consequence? Slap a 35% tax on any company that does?
— Justin Amash (@justinamash) December 5, 2016
As Amazon and its imitators refine this technology, prices at automated stores will drop to undercut stores still using service workers. Do we hit Amazon with a “tariff” too to boost those prices back up and level the playing field? Pass a federal statute outlawing certain types of automation? If I were Jeff Bezos, I’d go knock on Trump’s door and demand $5 billion in tax breaks not to roll out this system. If Carrier can get special treatment in the name of giving Trump a political win, why shouldn’t Amazon? I’m confident we can hold back the technology forever if we throw enough money at stopping it.
Exit question: Why would you need a brick-and-mortar Amazon store when Amazon and its nascent army of delivery drones can and will deliver anything right to your home? The answer, I assume, is that the sort of store you see here will specialize in mid-day food options — lunch, snacks, drinks, and dinner “meal kits.” Anything you might need immediately while you’re at work and away from home. The interesting question is which model supermarkets eventually adopt as the delivery/automation economy develops further. Do most people end up having their groceries delivered, a la Instacart, or do most people head down to the “no checkout” supermarket to do their own grocery shopping?