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Amazon's store of the future is delayed. Now what?

The online retail giant’s concept store won’t be revolutionizing the shopping experience quite yet.

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The store of the future will, let's hope, be coming sometime in the future.

Amazon

Word is that if you have the right connections, you too can shop at Amazon's experimental cashierless store called Amazon Go.

"It's not fully open, but it is open to the public, if you knew somebody," a former Amazon Go employee said last week.

That may be great for a lucky few with buddies at Amazon, but this isn't how things were supposed to shake out. The Seattle convenience store, which did away with checkout lines by using machine learning and computer vision, was initially slated to open in early 2017. To hit that self-imposed deadline, Amazon would have to open the store today and that doesn't appear to be happening.

The delay, reportedly caused by glitches at the store, represents a rare and embarrassing misstep for a high-profile project from Amazon, which this year has been riding high on its soaring stock price and blockbuster $13.7 billion deal to buy Whole Foods. The situation also raises questions over when, or if, Amazon Go's technology will be ready for public use, throwing cold water on many consumers' hopes that they can someday purchase stuff at stores without having to stop at checkout.

The delay may also offer a moment of relief for retailer workers, who've seen stores close at a record pace this year and who may fear Amazon Go's technology will make many of their jobs obsolete. For its part, Amazon has said its test store employs just as many workers as a regular convenience store, but it's able to reassign people to different tasks.

"Bravo to Amazon for trying. It hasn't failed yet," said Brendan Witcher, a Forrester e-commerce analyst. "But don't expect this to take off without any hiccups. That shouldn't surprise anyone."

When asked about the delay, an Amazon spokeswoman said, "We don't have any updates to share."

Amazon revealed its concept store to great excitement in early December, with the announcement perfectly timed for the online retailer to grab a wave of attention during the holiday shopping season. A short promotional video from Amazon showed people walking into the store, tapping their phones at turnstiles at the front, then grabbing a wrap, a cupcake or salad and walking out. 

The store tracks customer purchases using tech including deep-learning algorithms and computer-vision-enabled cameras, that Amazon dubbed "Just Walk Out" technology and that it's been working on for four years. The video ended with the catchphrase "No lines, no checkout. (No, seriously.)"

The store has been open to Amazon employees for months, with company workers shopping there daily. More recently, the former Amazon Go employee said, some non-Amazon folks have been able to visit, too.

But glitches at the store were delaying its public debut, The Wall Street Journal reported in late March, citing unnamed sources. According to the story, Amazon Go's software was struggling to track more than 20 people at a time.

Amazon Go's landing page text from early April (top) and today (bottom).

Amazon and Internet Archive

Sometime in April, Amazon quietly edited the Amazon Go landing page to remove a reference that the store "will open to the public in early 2017," according to a review of the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine pages. An accompanying video on the page was also edited to remove the "early 2017" reference. A similar YouTube video, though, wasn't edited.

Still going

Despite the slow start, the Amazon Go team is "talking about going forward," the former employee said.

The former employee, who asked to not be named because of nondisclosure agreements signed with Amazon, disputed the Journal's story, suggesting the store was capable of handling more than 20 people.

"They were on a path that it could be a viable product," the person said. "There were still challenges to be overcome, but it wasn't failing either."

The former employee added that Amazon experiments a lot, so there's always the chance that Amazon Go won't open publicly if the company decides the experience for users isn't good enough.

Alan O'Herlihy, whose Ireland-based company Everseen is developing technology similar to Amazon Go's, had been skeptical of Amazon's project. He argued that Amazon wasn't accumulating enough data from just one location to teach its computers how to respond to all the curveballs and potential thefts that may occur on a store floor.

But, he added, the Whole Foods deal will give the company access to the wealth of store video and transaction data it'll need.

"Up to this point, they were going nowhere," he said. "Now the game is changing with the acquisition of Whole Foods. The data they'll be getting is incredible."

That could mean Amazon Go won't open until after the Whole Foods deal is completed, which is expected later this year. However, Amazon has said that if the acquisition goes through, Amazon Go technology won't be integrated into Whole Foods locations.

The former employee added that bringing Amazon Go tech into Whole Foods would be much more difficult, since those grocery stores are bigger and have many more products to track than in the Amazon Go convenience store.

If Amazon does succeed in fully developing Amazon Go's technology, O'Herlihy said, the concept of being able to walk in and out of a store with your stuff would be just be the beginning. He suggested that Amazon could start creating much tighter connections between online and offline shopping, allowing it to know customers' buying patterns, transaction histories and other details right when they walk into a store.

But before that concept becomes a reality, Amazon will likely need to figure out how and when it will open that first store.

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