The Amazon Go-inspired rush to reinvent retail

Published
  • June 08 2018, 11:18am EDT

The cashierless Amazon Go store is barely more than an experiment — it's live in only one location in Seattle, with plans for a handful of stores to follow this year — but it has already sparked a race to put similar models in place.

This competitive trend is particularly heated among grocery stores, where Amazon competes directly through its ownership of Whole Foods and AmazonFresh.

This listicle is compiled from reporting by PaymentsSource writers including John Adams, Kate Fitzgerald, David Heun and Brielle Diskin. Click the links in each item to read more.

Groceries get the Go treatment

Following the path paved by the checkout-free Amazon Go concept, the newly merged Albertsons and Rite Aid are developing their own technologies for faster and more efficient checkouts.

Albertsons unveiled its plans for an Amazon Go-style store during a presentation to analysts last month. The store's cashierless checkout system will support a limited set of products such as Albertsons' meal kit line, Plated, said Shane Sampson, chief marketing and merchandising officer. The system will be supported by an app for mobile checkouts as well.

“We’re experimenting with Amazon Go-like technology today, where for example someone could go in and pick up a Plated order, it would know that you’re in the store, it would tender and order and you can leave outside of the check stand,” said Sampson.

In broad strokes, this is very close to Amazon's model, which uses a mobile app to determine which customers are in its store and automatically charge their default payment card for any products they walk out with. Amazon uses cameras and other sensors to detect which items are being removed from its stores, and by whom. Customers have a chance to review their purchases after the fact correct any mistakes in how they were charged.

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Amazon Go-in-a-box

Amazon casts a huge shadow over the retail industry, but it can be as much an inspiration as a threat.

"Our company would exist and we would be doing this without pressure from Amazon, but we have gotten more funding because of Amazon and that pressure is felt and understood by retailers," said Jordan Fisher, CEO of Standard Cognition, a Palo Alto-based startup that is selling artificial intelligence technology that uses advanced cameras to eliminate most of a store's need for traditional checkout.

The concept strongly resembles Amazon Go. At the time Standard Cognition developed its technology, Amazon Go was still in a prolonged pilot, reportedly struggling to deal with large crowds. Despite those problems, Amazon has proven that such a model is possible, Fisher said.

"We would be in much more of a research phase, trying to convince the world that this is even theoretically possible," Fisher said. "Because of Amazon's pressure there's more of a willingness to accept this."

Investing in the next Go

One of the options for brick and mortar to strike back at e-commerce is real-time in-store analysis, where nascent technology gives consumers the a personalized experience without stopping to pay or engage with staff.

"It's the last mile," said Steve Sarracino, founder and partner at Activant Capital. "You know who is doing what … and you can connect a shopper to an item."

Activant's portfolio includes a recent lead on a $17 million investment in NewStore, a Boston-based mobile retail platform that combines in-store and online engagement to create a single view of a consumer's shopping and payments across channels. Over the past couple of years, Activant has been part of more than $100 million in investments in RetailNext, a San Jose-based in-store analytics company that uses sensors as part of its mix of marketing, omnichannel, loss prevention and mobile point of sale products.

The New York-based Activant has also been part of more than $60 million in investments in ShopKeep POS, another New York-based company that embeds payments and digital content into tablets and other mobile devices.

All of these technologies aim to bring online shopping and mobile payment into stores—an Amazon meets Uber model—in part to counter Amazon's increasing dominance over retail.

RetailNext's sensors play one of the most interesting roles in this evolution, according to Sarracino. The sensors, which have their roots in casino security, have been improved to distinguish staff from shoppers, and can ID where shoppers are in stores and what they are buying.

"The shopping experience needs to change, and retailers now understand that and consumers are craving it," said Bridget Johns, head of marketing and customer experience at RetailNext.

China's head start

The cashierless Amazon Go concept is inspiring fear in traditional U.S. retailers, but the idea is already mainstream in China.

A cashierless chain called BingoBox has grown to 300 locations and 30 cities in China in about two years, and is planning to expand to other cities in and outside of China. To shop at BingoBox, consumers use an app to gain access to the store by scanning a QR code. They then select items and pay via WeChat Pay or Alipay, with sensors "checking" the card to make sure no unauthorized items were selected.

By comparison, Amazon opened its first Go store in January in Seattle, and will reportedly add up to six stores by the end of this year. Even though that's much less than BingoBox, there are some signs that Amazon's pace of expansion may be too fast given the lack of consumer adoption of the necessary technology in much of the U.S.; and there's no sign Amazon is planning to turn its acquired Whole Foods network into cashierless stores.

In China, BingoBox isn't the only major cashierless chain in town. JD.com, China's second- largest online retailer after Alibaba, is in the midst of opening hundreds of unstaffed stores in collaboration with the real estate developer China Overseas Land & Investment, according to The Telegraph. These stores use facial recognition technology to generate heat maps to identify and track users, who then pay via a linked mobile app. JD is also piloting driverless cars to deliver groceries.

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Amazon Go 2.0

Amazon is not sitting still while other companies attempt to steal its thunder. It has already chosen two locations in Chicago for its next cashierless Amazon Go store, as the e-commerce giant plots an expansion of Go outside of Seattle.

The new stores will be in the Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower, and the Ogilvie Transportation Center, a commuter rail terminal that includes retail, reports the Chicago Tribune.

The Willis Tower location is a little ironic, since Go and Amazon in general are considered to be major threats to traditional retail stores such as Sears, though Sears has not been headquartered in the Chicago skyscraper for many years. Amazon is also expected to open a Go store in San Francisco's Union Square, with additional locations in Seattle and Los Angeles.