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What it's like inside Amazon's futuristic, automated store

The new Amazon Go store in Seattle features something different: no cashiers. CNET got an early look.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Shara Tibken
Ben Fox Rubin
8 min read
Shara Tibken/CNET

I open the Amazon Go app on my phone, scan a QR code on top of the white turnstile and watch as electronic arms open to let me in. Glancing around the convenience store, which is bustling with Amazon employees shopping for lunch items, I head left to the cold drinks section, grab a can of Diet Pepsi and exit through the barrier. Not once did I pull out my wallet or tap my phone anywhere to make a payment.

Amazon Go's entrance, seen from outside.

Amazon Go is located on the ground level of Amazon's Seattle headquarters. 

Shara Tibken/CNET

No, I'm not a shoplifter. I'm getting a preview of the Amazon Go automated store within the internet giant's headquarters in Seattle. It opens to the public Monday.

The biggest feature of the store, one of the first shops of its kind, is the fact there are no cashiers. When you arrive, you scan the Amazon Go app on your iPhone or Android phone at a turnstile to register your presence and enter the store. After that, everything you pick up is automatically tracked by the store's cameras and charged to your Amazon account when you walk out. It all happens without you having to check in with a store employee or physically make a payment.

"Our plan from the beginning was ... what can we do so you could walk into the place, take anything you want and leave," Gianna Puerini, vice president of Amazon Go, says as we walk around the store four days before it opens to the public.

Amazon Go was a surprise announcement from the company, timed right in the middle of the 2016 holiday shopping season to get Amazon plenty of buzz. It's an 1,800-square-foot convenience store, built at the street-level entrance of its Day 1 high-rise, that uses deep-learning algorithms and computer-vision-enabled cameras to let people grab what they want and walk out.

Watch this: Shopping at Amazon Go is really freakin' fast

Amazon Go, which was supposed to let in the public last year, opens the door to the prospect that you may never have to wait at a cashier line again -- even for those clunky self-checkout machines. But at the same time, the store raises concerns about the future of work or the local corner store, and worries that Amazon is slowly replacing humans with technology.

But all of that was in the back of my mind as I entered the store. My most pressing question: Did any of this work?

I traveled to Seattle from San Francisco to see how convenient the Amazon Go convenience store actually is. My colleague Ben Fox Rubin, who's based in New York and helped write this report, gave me a good rundown of how the store was supposed to work. But I didn't really realize just how easy and fast the process would be.

Amazon Go felt a lot like shopping online, except you're in a brick-and-mortar store. I didn't have to wait in any lines and could immediately take whatever I wanted. The whole process was so quick and seamless, I almost forgot the items weren't free -- and for Amazon, that may be the point.

Fast and convenient

The first thing I see when I walk into the Amazon Go store are ready-to-eat meals. Pasta salads, lettuce salads, wraps and sandwiches line the tall shelves, making it easy for someone to dash in, grab food and run back out. Amazon employees in bright orange shirts restock items, making sure the store never runs out of popular selections.

To the left of the ready-made meals are cold drinks -- pop, sparkling water and pretty much anything else you can think of. As I head right to walk deeper into the store, I see giant cookies from Seattle's Macrina Bakery and dill pickle chips from Whole Foods, the grocery store chain Amazon acquired last year. Other sections have milk, yogurt, snack trays, baking supplies and Amazon Meal Kits, which come with all the ingredients needed to make a meal for two. 

A look inside the cashierless Amazon Go store

See all photos

In the back corner is the wine and beer shop, the only place you have to actually interact with a human being. There's an Amazon employee there at all times to check your ID. After your age is verified, you can grab whatever alcohol you want and walk out of the store, the same as you do with any other item.

"We really focused on fast, convenient," Puerini said. "Grab a quick lunch, grab something to take home for dinner, perhaps a quick drink or a snack."

The store has been open for the past year, but only to Amazon employees. Monday marks the first time members of the public can shop there. You don't need an Amazon Prime account or any sort of special verification. All you need is a regular Amazon account, the Amazon Go app, and to be in Seattle.

Prices at the store are subject to change, but right now they range from 49 cents for a bottle of water to $42.99 for a bottle of Caro Red Blend wine.

The store is open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. PT from Monday to Friday.

The future of shopping?

The announcement of the Amazon Go store resulted in lots of hand-wringing from traditional retailers, who were worried they weren't keeping up with Amazon. It also inspired much criticism that Amazon's technology would kill jobs, something Amazon denied.

"Retailers could have and should have been pursuing this all along," Forrester analyst Brendan Witcher said. "No retail customer in the history of shopping has ever said, 'I want to wait in line for 15 minutes.'"

There are some efforts from rivals to create something like Amazon Go, most notably from the Ireland-based retail vendor Everseen, as well as China's Alibaba, which created a pop-up cashierless cafe.

Amazon has said it employs the same number of people at Amazon Go as you'd find at a comparably sized convenience store, though Puerini declined to provide specific numbers. Instead of cashiers, Amazon has more people restocking shelves and preparing meals.

A customer enters the Amazon Go store.

Amazon Go's biggest feature? No cashiers. To enter and check in, you whip out your phone, open the Amazon Go app and scan it at a turnstile. Cameras track which products you choose, and your Amazon account is automatically charged when you leave.

Shara Tibken/CNET

Still, things haven't been all smooth for Amazon. The company missed its self-imposed deadline of opening the store by "early 2017," without providing any explanation. Amazon rarely sets deadlines for new initiatives -- it just announces them when they're ready or doesn't specify timing -- so this miss on a high-profile project stands out.

The Wall Street Journal reported in March that technological problems, such as issues tracking a lot of people at once, caused Amazon to delay its public store opening.

Amazon is now more resistant to set public deadlines for new tech unless it has a "high degree of confidence" things will go as planned, according to one person familiar with the company. This person also said Amazon has a desire to create more Amazon Go locations but hasn't yet moved forward with an expansion plan.

Puerini dismissed the notion that technological issues affected its launch, and said the delays came from excessive demand from Amazon employees.

"We were happily surprised to find out that the traffic and patronage that we got just from Amazonian customers was beyond our expectations and was really all we needed," she said.

Sensors and machine learning

Amazon has been pretty quiet about the specifics of the technology powering its Go store. It has touted the use of "the same types of technologies used in self-driving cars: computer vision, sensor fusion and deep learning." Together, those make up Amazon's "Just Walk Out" technology to detect which products are taken and which are returned to shelves.

Puerini wouldn't go into detail about Just Walk Out but said sensors in the shelving help detect what items have been selected. It's similar to hotel mini bars where you're charged for whatever items you remove from the fridge. Hundreds of cameras, which look like black boxes, cover the ceilings of the store to keep track of what you pick up and put back down.

"None of this existed" when Amazon began its project five years ago, Puerini said. "We couldn't go buy the pieces of this and put them together."

The company spent a lot of time before opening its beta store to employees in late 2016 to polish its computer vision and machine learning capabilities. The cameras had to be able to detect which particular item was selected and be able to tell between the vanilla version of a drink and the lemon, for example. The sensors in the shelves help with that.

The cameras also had to be able to handle multiple people shopping at the same time, as well as people moving quickly and standing closely together.

"Us standing really far apart, the only two people in the store, taking things, is one situation," Puerini said. "A store that's starting to get really bustling with a lot of products that look really similar, that's a whole other set of challenges that we've got to solve."

Tracking 'your entity'

Everything seemed to work just as Amazon promised during my demo, with some caveats. I wasn't able to use Amazon Go on my personal device or with my Amazon account but instead accessed it through a dummy phone and account provided by Amazon. I didn't go through the setup process to see how easy that was. I also didn't have time to try out disguises to see if the system still recognized and charged me.

Amazon said disguises wouldn't matter anyway. The technology doesn't use facial recognition or phone tracking. Instead, scanning that QR code in the Amazon Go app lets the store know that your account is shopping there and lets the cameras track "your entity," as Puerini put it.

If you're shopping with members of your family, each can sign in to your account on a separate phone, or you can just tap each person in at the turnstile using your own device. That registers that everything they select will also be added to your account. If you're shopping with a friend, and you each have your own accounts, the person who picks up the items from the shelf is the one who's charged.

A customer examines Meal Kits in the Amazon Go store.

Amazon sells its Meal Kits in the Amazon Go store. These come with ingredients for cooking a two-person meal. 

Shara Tibken/CNET

You can check your receipt in the Amazon Go app, and if you see something you didn't purchase, you can swipe left to delete the charge. The app will ask the reason for your deletion but won't make you jump through hoops to get a refund.

"It's super easy," Puerini said of the return process. "The [Just Walk Out] system is highly accurate, so any errors are extremely rare."

Puerini said Amazon "certainly" would like to open more Amazon Go stores but doesn't have any immediate plans to do so.

Many industry observers expect Amazon to eventually roll out Amazon Go's technology to its Whole Foods stores, giving the company a big advantage over competing grocery chains. But Puerini said Amazon has "absolutely no plans" to bring its Just Walk Out technology to Whole Foods. Puerini also declined to say whether Amazon would license its technology to other technology companies or retailers.

"Right now we're laser-focused on this one" store, she said.

Before I leave, I make one last loop, checking out the options. I finally grab a "Just Walk Out Shopping" mug and a giant chocolate oat peanut butter cookie from Macrina Bakery.

With my selections in hand, I breeze out the door. Is this the future of shopping? I sure could get used to it.

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