When I spot a man with a bright orange bag in his bicycle’s basket, I know I’m getting close.
Though it’s located more than a mile from my house, I’m spending my afternoon grocery shopping at Amazon Go, the new checkout-less, upscale mini-mart located in downtown Seattle. And I’m not the only one. It’s opening day, and there’s a line that’s just curving around the block when I arrive. There are three or four Amazonians handing out bags and asking every two minutes if everyone has downloaded the app. I snag an embarrassingly orange bag for myself and step in line. It’s 3:58 p.m.
Though I knew there’d be a line (thanks to Twitter), I downloaded the Amazon Go app ahead of time. I had to swipe through a few screens to learn how it worked before logging in to my Amazon account and selecting a credit card to pay for my foodstuffs. One no-no is being a helpful citizen and handing a fellow shopper a bag of pretzels. Apparently, you’ll be the one to get charged. But, you can pick up a tub of ice cream, look at the ingredients, decide you’re not a fan of carrageenan, and put it back. You won’t be charged. The magic (or creepiness?) is in the dozens of cameras that track you as you move through the 1,800-square-foot shop, watching whether you actually put those blueberries in your bag or not.
It’s 4:03 and a man passes by, asking if “this long line” is for the store. “It’s a long line that moves quickly!” one of the bag-hander-outers cheerily shouts after him. There’s a big window to my right where I can watch the Amazon Go sausage get made, or, more accurately, just a guy washing dishes.
“You’re the bag lady,” a man tells the cheerful employee as he gets his own tote. “That’s the first time I’ve been called that!” she tells him.
Cameras track you around the store as you put food in your bag, making checkouts unnecessary.
A couple minutes later, she suggests we all open the app and take a look at the “discover” section to see what products the store has to offer and find out what’s on sale. I take her advice, but the page never loads. At 4:06, a different woman tells us to have our apps open to the barcode. At 4:07, I’m in front of a new window, where I can see two large ranges. At 4:09, the two teenagers in front of me make it into the Go, but I’m stopped to wait for more people to emerge. One minute later, I’m resting my phone on the turnstile’s scanner. The woman next to me zips through her turnstile, but I have to wiggle my phone to get the clear gates to slide open. Then I enter the 1,800-square-foot store, which looks like an upscale 7-11.
The first thing I see is a wall of prepared, to-go food, like sandwiches, salads, and pastas. The steak nicoise salad is $8. The tuna wrap is $6. Amazon does own Whole Foods, and the prices aren’t out of line with those stores. The individual drinks cooler is filled with Coke products and tons of sparkling water options. La Croix cans are on sale for 89 cents. Having never bought a single can of La Croix before, I have no idea if this is a good deal. I select a raspberry-lime Spindrift for $1.25 instead.
There’s a smallish selection of cookies; for example, there’s only a single type of Cougar Mountain cookies: Original Chocolate Chunk. Predictable, but fine. Maybe Lemon Snickerdoodle is too polarizing, but it would have made me happy.
As I maneuver around the store, I notice that the guardians at the door are keeping the number of shoppers at a comfortable level. No one’s crowding a particular section and traffic is flowing. There are no grocery carts. That keeps the aisles clear but could be an inconvenience for some shoppers who then have to lug around a bag that’s laden with heavy jars and bottles. I pick up items, put them back. I take a yogurt, do a few laps and put it back. I’m trying to test the system. Will I be charged for this $1.39 Fage? I can’t help but overhear some of my fellow shoppers, some of whom find the store smaller than expected and prices more affordable. “How does it know? Does it know?” a woman asks as she puts some mini pies in her bag. “It knows,” says her friend.
Because of the nature of the store as well as its size and location, shoppers aren’t going to find everything they want. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of pet section, for example. The only vegetables I see are spinach, mixed greens, carrots, green beans, white mushrooms, and snap peas, though according to the “Discover” section of the app, I missed butternut squash chunks, red potatoes, and pre-packaged fajita and stir-fry mixes. I’m in the market for broccoli and thus out of luck.
Amazon is also pushing some Blue Apron-style meal kits. Ranging between $16 and $19, they offer everything you need for a meal for two. The parmesan pork loin comes with green beans, potatoes, and a creme-fraiche dill dressing.
Finally, I saunter up to the beer and wine section in the corner. There is a cluster of people around, waiting to have their IDs checked by an employee. One man laughs because this usually happens at the checkout, “but there is no checkout!” Because I need the full experience, I fork over my ID and get a can of rosé. OK, two cans of rosé. They don’t have them at my usual grocery store.
After 17 minutes and 53 seconds (the app creepily tells me exactly how long my visit was), I head out through the turnstile. A bunch of people stand waiting, as if they’re afraid to make the move themselves. The little doors swish open, and I hoist my orange bag onto my shoulder. It feels like a heist.
As I’m making my way home, I check my app. It’s been nine minutes, and my receipt is there. A pop-up tells me all I need to do is swipe, and I’ll be refunded for an item — like maybe that rogue yogurt? Nope, it’s not there. My 10 items have come to a grand total of $35.89. I head to my neighborhood grocery store, feeling a little awkward to be bringing in my bulky Amazon bag. But I do need that broccoli. I grab it and do some comparison shopping. The raspberries are a dollar more expensive here, but the Fage is on sale for 88 cents. Then I head to the automatic check-out machines. There’s no line.
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