Amazon Opens a Whole Foods With the Next Step in Automation

“Do you want to sign in with your palm?”

This question was asked by a cheerful Amazon employee who greeted me at the opening of the Whole Foods Market in the Glover Park neighborhood of Washington last week. She happily added, “You can also start shopping by scanning the QR code in your Amazon app.”

“Let’s go for the palm,” I said.

In less than a minute, I scanned both hands at the kiosk and linked them to my Amazon account. I then turned my right palm into a turnstile reader and entered the most technically sophisticated grocery store in the country.

For the next 30 minutes, I shopped. I took a bag of cauliflower flowers, a sparkling water of grapefruit, a carton of strawberries and a package of organic chicken sausage. Cameras and sensors recorded my every move, creating a virtual shopping cart for me in real time. Then I just walked out, no cashier needed. Whole Foods – or Amazon – will bill my account later.

More than four years ago, Amazon bought Whole Foods for 13 billion. Now the Amazon-fiction of the grocery chain is physically complete, as demonstrated by the revamped Whole Foods store in Glover Park.

In the long run, Amazon took only small steps to make its mark on more than 500 whole food stores in the United States and Britain. The main evidence of the change was discounts and free home delivery for Amazon Prime members.

But these 21,000-square-foot whole foods north of Georgetown have furthered Amazon’s involvement. Along with another prototype Whole Foods store, which will open in Los Angeles this year, Amazon has designed my local grocer for the first time to run almost entirely through tracking and robotic tools.

Called Just Walk Out, the technology includes hundreds of cameras that can be viewed by customers. Sensors are placed under each apple, oatmeal carton and bowl of multigrain bread. Behind the scenes, deep-learning software analyzes shopping activity to find patterns and increase the accuracy of its charges.

This technology is comparable to what is in a driverless car. It identifies when we remove the product from the shelf, freezer or product bin; Automatically itemizes goods; And charges us when we leave the store. Anyone with an Amazon account, not just Prime members, can make purchases this way and leave a cash register since the bill appears in our Amazon account.

Amazon has been testing such automation for over four years, starting with 24 Amazon Go convenience stores and some Amazon Fresh grocery stores across the country. The palm-scanning technology, known as Amazon One, is also being licensed by others, such as the Hudson Convenience Store at Dulles International Airport near Washington and Shakile O’Neill’s Big Chicken Restaurant at Climate Place Arena in Seattle.

Those stores were valuable experiments, said Dilip Kumar, Amazon’s vice president of physical retail and technology. The company sees Whole Foods as another step in its tech expansion into retail stores, he said.

Mr. Kumar said. “We’ve always noticed that customers don’t like standing in a checkout line. It’s not the most productive use of their time, which is why we came up with the idea of ​​just walking out. “

He declined to comment on whether Amazon plans to expand the technology to all Whole Foods stores.

My New York Times colleague Karen Weiss, who covers Amazon from Seattle, said the company works long hours to run slowly with patience and money. It has allowed for many years to transform labor, retail and logistics, she said. Grocery is just one part of his ambition.

The Whole Foods has been operating in Glover Park for over 20 years, the cornerstone of a neighborhood within walking distance of the residence of the Embassy Rowe and the Vice President’s Naval Observatory. Four years ago, the store closed due to a dispute with the landlord and a rat infestation. Amazon announced last year that it would reopen the store as a Just Walk Out pilot project.

The rats may have gone, but the neighbors are not offended. The renovated store has sparked an enthusiastic local discussion, with residents squabbling over the Nextdor community app and serving neighborhood email lists on the store’s “dystopian” feel as opposed to its “impressive technology”. Some neighbors recalled how the store invited people to just hang out, selling free samples and fluffy blueberry pancakes over the weekend.

Alex Levine, 55, an 18-year-old resident of Glover Park, said people shouldn’t reject store changes.

“We need to understand the pros and cons of technology and use it to our advantage,” he said. He added that he tried to deceive the camera and sensors by placing a box of chicken nuggets in his shopping bag and then putting the item in the freezer. Amazon was not fooled, and was not charged for nuggets, he said.

But others said they found errors in their bills and were about to end production by the pound. Now everything is offered per item, bundle or box. Some mourned the disappearance of the checkout line, where they were studying magazines and last-minute bag items. Many were skeptical on tracking tech.

“It’s like George Orwell’s 1984,” said Alan Hangst, 72, a retired librarian.

Amazon said it does not plan to use video and other whole food consumer information for advertising or its recommendation engine. Buyers who do not wish to participate in the experimental technique can enter the store without signing up and pay by self-checkout kiosk with a credit card or cash.

As a longtime customer of Glover Park’s Whole Foods, I missed the dark, cramped and often chaotic store and was excited to explore the changes. But somewhere between the palm scan and the six-pack banana bundle, I began to feel dilemma.

I saw a sign near the entrance forbidding shoppers to take photos or videos inside. My gaze went to the ceiling, where I saw hundreds of small black plastic boxes hanging from the rafters.

An employee went inside. “It’s a camera that will follow you throughout your shopping experience,” she explained without any hint of irony.

Some workers milled at the entrance to guide customers through check-in, while others stood behind seafood counters, cheese stations and production areas. Mr. “Stores always employ men, but I wonder how long,” Kumar said. Amazon, under scrutiny for its labor practices, said employee roles could change over time and focus more on interacting with customers to answer questions.

More self-service was an early sign of the future. At the bakery, I searched for someone to bake my $ 4.99 Harvest bread and was directed to an industry-grade bread slicer for customers. A small label warns: Sharp blade. Keep hands away from all moving parts.

Mr. Kumar will not share data on the accuracy of Just Walkout, so I tested the technology. I picked up an organic avocado and placed it on a pile of nonorganic avocados. After walking around the store, I went back and picked up the same organic avocado. If the cameras and sensors work properly, Amazon will be at the top of my list and charge me for the organic avocados that are incorrectly placed in a traditional box.

When I was ready to go, I had the option of using a self-checkout kiosk or skipping the process. I decided next and waved my palm again on the exit turnstile. Turnstile’s hands opened.

“You should receive your receipt in two to three hours,” said an outgoing employee.

I walked out. It feels uncomfortable, as if I had mistakenly gone as a shoplifter.

An hour later an email from Amazon arrived in my inbox. Send me a link to my Amazon account for details. “My shopping experience was 32 minutes and 26 seconds,” he said. My total bill was $ 34.35 – and I was properly charged for organic avocado.

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