It’s the most wonderful time of the year… new adventures in shopping

It’s the first week of December, just another week in the busiest shopping season of the year for many American retailers for whom holiday sales account for “as much as 30 percent of annual sales.” Retailers will jump through hoops to get shoppers to complete purchases, offering freebies, sales and “doorbusters” just to get customers into the store and helpers on the floor to help shoppers find the gifts they need. Yet the checkout process has stayed the same (aside from slowing down the process with chip cards) with long lines of shoppers waiting to pay a common sight at many stores.

"What if we could weave the most adavnace machine learning, computer vision, and AI into the fabric of a store?" Source: Amazon Go video

“What if we could weave the most advance machine learning, computer vision, and AI into the fabric of a store?”
Source: Amazon Go video

Long lines lead shoppers to abandon their purchases, which is one reason that Amazon’s announcement today of a checkout-free store seems like a great step forward. Amazon Go is a store without a checkout line, where shoppers do not need to stop, unload their cart, and pay. All they need to do is install an app, scan it when they walk into the store, and start shopping. Says Amazon: “Our Just Walk Out technology automatically detects when products are taken from or returned to the shelves and keeps track of them in a virtual cart.” All items added in the store will be charged to the shopper’s Amazon account when they leave the store.

There are two things with this launch that I find interesting:

First is the realization that brick and mortar stores offer value. This from Amazon itself, pioneer of the online superstore and a long time believer that the best and only way to shop is online. Whether it’s the brand experience, the ability to touch products, try on clothes, see the size and actual color of the product, or maybe the instant gratification of an in-store purchase, malls and stores are not going away anytime soon.

Second is the admission that there are processes that can be improved in the retail experience that haven’t been changed for decades. It’s the same process now as it was in the last century: browse, gather, and pay. Maybe it’s time to improve parts of that process.

It’s not that stores haven’t tried. All have added an online presence with ecommerce capabilities. They have mobile apps for on-the-go shopping They’ve adapted the flash-sale phenomena, implemented in-store pick-up of online orders for faster gratification, guaranteed product availability, less wandering in the store looking for products, and less lines, and they’ve partnered with on-demand services like Postmates and Google Express to compete with Amazon’s fastest delivery options. Yet that hasn’t fundamentally changed the in-store process.

By launching no-checkout stores, Amazon has tackled a common pain-point for many shoppers. That said, it comes at a privacy price some consumers might not be willing to pay. When Amazon detects what products are removed and returned to shelves, it has valuable insight on what the shopper thought of buying, not just eventually bought. Considering the scourge of ads that retarget shoppers with products they have already bought, knowing what shoppers considered buying but did not buy is valuable information.

Finally, responses to Amazon Go have included a lament that this is another case of technology taking away jobs, in this case, cashier jobs. I’m convinced that the best brick and mortar experience will definitely include human interaction, just not in the cashier position. For example, our local hardware store has a greeter that asks everyone walking in what they’re looking for and points them in the right direction. (Yes, I know a robot can do this, but considering the current state of voice interactions as implemented on Google Home, it will take time before a robot greeter knows the answer to detailed questions without requiring the asker to use specific template.)  I’ve also a great shopping experiences buying clothes that have to fit just right, such as jeans and bathing suits, that were made easier with assistance from extremely competent salespeople. Sales people that are familiar with their product line, how different models fit, what works for what body type, and where to find everything do more to create a positive experience and generate a sale than any cashier. It’s not about eliminating humans from the shopping experience, it’s about eliminating a specific frustration. Can’t wait to have it everywhere.

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