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The Most Surprising Thing I Found at Amazon Go

By Maggie Williams Dryden,
The Most Surprising Thing I Found at Amazon Go

I recently went to Seattle to participate with over 400 retailers in a conference about the store of the future. Over the course of two days, I heard the words “Amazon Go” mentioned in most of the presentations and discussions.

“It’s the store of the future!” “It’s going to change retail forever!” “I can’t compete with that!” These comments seemed to be the consensus.

This Seattle store has gotten more press coverage than a Kardashian in the last year. It boasts being 100% self-service. All you need is an Amazon Prime membership and your phone to shop without lines or a fixed station point of sale terminal.

Amazon has become infamous for retail disruption. It consistently pushes the envelope. It showcases things like drone delivery, a checkout-less store, fresh local grocery delivery (that can be put into your fridge!), and a constantly growing membership base.

Never mind that it doesn’t have to show profitability for its retail division.

Since this shop is the source of so much speculation about the future of retail as we know it, I knew I needed to see it for myself.

So after a short walk from Pike Street Market, I found myself in front of the storied wonderland of retail known as Amazon Go.

There was a simple sign out front outlining that I needed to download yet another Amazon app to enter. After downloading the app, I would need to log in to my Prime account, and then scan myself into the store at the turnstile up front.

I downloaded the Amazon Go app and added it to the folder on my phone with Amazon Music, Amazon Alexa, Amazon Prime, Amazon Prime Video, and Amazon Prime Now.

I’m a fan - I’ll admit.

The instruction screens were clear. If I picked up an item, it would go into my cart. If I put it back on the shelf, it would be removed.

I walked into the store.

I was totally surprised.

Could this little David possibly topple all of the retail Goliaths out there?

I was surprised at how small it was. And it was less a grocery store and more a convenience store, with the same basic grocery assortment I could find at a RaceTrac back home in Atlanta. I looked up and saw the vast network of ceiling cameras and motion monitors that would track my movements through the store.

It suddenly felt a lot less glamorous than I had expected.

And this is when I found the most unexpected surprise at Amazon Go: I saw store associates.

There were SIX of them. One greeted me as I scanned myself in, making sure I understood how to get in and out. Two others were restocking empty shelves on one side of the store; they asked if they could help me find anything. Customer service still exists after all - even in the POS-less Amazon store.

I walked past the cookies and pre-made sandwiches, turned the corner, and walked into the beer and wine section, where a fourth store associate checked my ID for my age before I could step into that corner. This associate’s role made the most sense to me: preventing underage alcohol purchases. I laughed to myself - doesn’t Amazon know how old I am? It knows all sorts of other things about me.

Before I left the store, I saw a fifth associate. He offered me a free, reusable Amazon Go bag. Despite knowing this was a marketing expense, I was again surprised, since every other store I went to in Seattle charged me for a bag to carry my purchases.

Since I didn’t actually need anything from the store, I put two drinks into the bag and walked toward the exit. The sixth and final store associate thanked me for coming in as I departed through the turnstile.

The store does have a restroom, but you have to look up the locked door code on your Amazon Go app before you can use it. Luckily, there is a charging station for your phone next to it.

As I exited the store, I looked at my app for my receipt to make sure I got charged for my actual purchases. It said “processing.” It continued to say “processing” for the next 20 minutes as I walked back to my hotel, until it finally posted a receipt.

It was correct.

Wasn’t all of the hype of this place that it was going to eliminate the need for customer-facing retail workers? If that were true, it certainly wouldn’t have had twice as many of them working there as I had ever seen at similar convenience stores.

As I thought more about it, I realized that one noticeable difference is that I actually interacted with the store associates. They didn’t have my Prime account history pulled up on a mobile device to offer me items they know that I regularly purchase, but they certainly could have. And the app could’ve asked me a simple yes or no question as I swiped in to see if I was interested in that interaction or if I preferred to be left alone.

This potential seems to me the most powerful thing about the concept.

Couldn’t other retailers, like my favorite clothing store, do this? Could they give me the option to self-identify upon entering, leverage technology to make recommendations, and serve that information up to store associates so that they could actually offer and sell me something, instead of waiting for me to buy it? Do they know me well enough? Do they keep a record of all of my orders like I know Amazon does?

The genius part of Amazon Go is that redundant processes were eliminated and resources have been reallocated to the store to create opportunities to improve the customer experience. The potential here, to revamp the transition from the digital experience to the in-store experience, isn’t something Amazon has a lock on. It’s possible within technology that’s available to retailers right now.

Retailers who want to leverage the model put forth by Amazon Go need to think past the elimination of their work force and see the potential to actually increase their sales and margin integrity by knowing who I am and giving me what I want. I don’t want someone else’s great experience - I want my great experience, between me and that brand.

I’ve been shopping for a long time. Thousands of dollars and a zillion rewards points later, isn’t it time the brands that I love show me some love in return, in the form of personalization?

Amazon has already proven that I’m willing to pay more for it - $129 a year for that subscription service. I will download the app and give my preferences; I just want it to work - and to offer me a seamless experience, where technology helps instead of getting in the way. Amazon Go might change the retail world in the future, but not in the way that seems most feared. Awesome customer experience isn’t dead, but mediocre experience might be terminal.

How can you leverage technology to offer great personalization in your stores? 

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