New York politicians still smarting over Amazon’s decision to cancel plans for a corporate headquarters in Long Island City can console themselves that the online retail giant has at least opened a 1,300-square-foot bricks-and-mortar store in Lower Manhattan.
On Tuesday, Amazon debuted the first East Coast location of its Go chain, on the upper level of Battery Park City’s Brookfield Place. The experimental retail brand amounts to a revolutionary reimagining of the traditional storefront, by eliminating cash, cashiers, and even automated checkout kiosks.
Instead, shoppers (carrying a smartphone with the Amazon Go app) simply walk into the space, pick up what they wish to purchase, and leave, without waiting on any line.
This is made possible by an array of emerging technologies such as computer vision, artificial intelligence, geofencing, sensor fusion, and shelves designed to detect the weight of merchandise being lifted off — all of which converge to identify shoppers as they enter, maintain a running total of the price for all that they pick up while there (less anything they put back), and then digitally charge them as they leave.
All of this gadgetry appears to be a work in progress: One visitor received a notification on his mobile phone that Amazon had charged his credit card one dollar, apparently just for entering the store. When an orange-shirted staffer was asked why this was the case, he replied, “I don’t think it’s supposed to do that.”
The first Amazon Go store opened at the company’s headquarters in Seattle in 2016, but access was initially limited to its own employees. By January of last year, the technology had been refined to the point that the firm was ready to allow the public to experience it. Two additional Seattle locations followed in 2018, with two more opening in Chicago in fourth quarter of last year. All of these outposts offer a combination of freshly prepared meals, groceries, and a limited selection of wines, making them loosely akin to a convenience store like 7-Eleven, but with a more upscale atmosphere.
The company initially tried to be discrete about its plans for New York, but when thinly disguised local job postings were noticed online in September, Amazon reluctantly fessed up and acknowledged that it was preparing to plant its flag in Manhattan.
Amazon Go is distinct from several other kinds of physical presence that the firm has locally, such as the Amazon Locker facilities found in multiple Lower Manhattan retail stores (these are essentially automated stations for receiving deliveries on behalf of customers) and Amazon 4 Star, which is a traditional store (the nearest location is in SoHo), where the merchandise consists of the most popular items on the firm’s website.
The technology used at the Amazon Go store may be a portent of what shopping is poised to become. Amazon has already announced that it intends to migrate the techniques developed there to its Whole Foods subsidiary. And the firm is considering opening as many as 3,000 Amazon Go storefronts in the next five years.
But this vision of the future also presents some troubling questions. Because admission to the store is restricted to those who own smartphones, it is unclear whether this will amount to discrimination against those who don’t have the means to purchase such expensive devices. And because such smartphones must be linked to a credit card or bank account to make purchase, the business plan for Go makes no provision for the millions of Americans who are “unbanked.”
The appearance of such exclusion (especially as it is perceived to break along class and racial lines) has led to resistance and political pushback. New Jersey recently enacted a state-wide prohibition on stores that refuse to accept cash, as did the city of Philadelphia. Other cities, such as San Francisco and New York, are considering following suit.
In response, the Amazon Go outpost in Brookfield Place has made somewhat awkward arrangements to accept cash: Customers who request assistance can hand coins or bills to a store clerk, who will accept the payment and then escort them from the store.
Among the comments overhead by a reporter on Tuesday as he mingled among the opening-day crowd were a man who observed, “this would be really efficient if it weren’t so crowded,” and a woman who remarked, “this place is giving me an anxiety attack.”