Cashierless tech must balance convenience with privacy

Register now

By 2021 there will be approximately 3,000 Amazon Go stores stretching across America. Billed as an exciting new way to shop, they certainly promise to make shopping easier. They also raise important privacy concerns.

Amazon is the world’s most successful online retailer. The firm has carved out its position by personalizing the shopping experience — making it intuitive, personal, and easier than ever before. Lurking behind that effortless UXP is data, and lots of it. When it comes to analyzing that data, there are few firms as competent as Amazon.

The retail giant has set its sights on the high street acquiring the retailer Whole Foods. It is now promising to bring shopping convenience to street near you, but are these brick-and-mortar Amazon Go stores designed to tempt consumers into trading convenience for invasive levels of corporate surveillance?

Amazon Go stores allow people to download an app, walk into a shop, pick things off shelves and leave without checking out. The balance for the items is magically deducted from the customer’s bank card via an Amazon account. A shopping experience so easy that you feel like you’re shoplifting may be appealing, but it also raises privacy concerns.
From the moment you scan your personal QR code to open the barrier at an Amazon Go store, Amazon is watching you and tracking your every movement. Entering an Amazon Go store is the real-word equivalent of consenting to website cookies.

Cameras throughout the store analyze customers’ behavior, storing their shopping habits and traits in a central database connected to their account.

Go stores also use microphones to listen to consumers, nothing goes unnoticed. Mention that you like or dislike a product in passing to a friend and Amazon will know. This allows the company to exert more influence over shoppers both in store and when they are back home planning their next shopping list (preferably using Alexa).

Worrying evidence has emerged that Go stores may even be profiling people’s body shapes and sizes. Meaning that Amazon may, for example, be able to coerce overweight people into buying the foods they ought really to stay away from.

Although it hasn’t started yet, it is possible that Amazon may begin using facial recognition to tailor adverts to shoppers as they move around stores. This technique is already used in U.K. Tesco petrol stations, where customers are served adverts on a screen depending on their gender and age.

While drawing parallels to internet cookies is easy, the reality is that this physical manifestation of tracking is far more troubling. Amazon’s website knows which pages people visit and how long their cursor lingers over a particular product.

With physical data at its fingertips, Amazon will build ever more accurate consumer profiles. This will give it more power to influence purchase decisions on a granular level, by leveraging emotional impulses and economic realities.

Imagine, for example, those occasions when you pick up an expensive brand instead of something cheaper but decide against it. Amazon could, tempt you into changing your mind by sending you a text message with a custom offer. Lowering the price just for you could make you feel special enough to continue the purchase.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.
Retailers Point-of-sale Data privacy Amazon ISO and agent