December 20, 2016

Amazon go forces staff to go

Still taken from Amazon go's videoclip (artwork: Gudrun Kiender)
Ever young, beautiful and with a smartphone: Frame from the promotional video of Amazon go (artwork: Gudrun Kiender)
At first blush it looks like progress. Next month Amazon will go public with a pilot convenience shop that has no checkout lines or cashiers.

The beta model for the new "Amazon go" store is currently being tested by company employees in hometown Seattle. A corporate video explains the concept: Sensors and articifial intelligence detect what shoppers take from the shelves and add each item to a virtual cart. The price of the goods is then debited from their smartphone when they leave the store.

If the "Just Walk Out" technology is implemented by Amazon for bricks & mortar retailers or is copied by them, checkout-free stores will obviously have a positive impact on their P&L.

Like most employers, retailers, whatever their highly paid CEOs may say to the contrary in public, generally see their staff as a cost rather than as an asset. So they are likely to embrace the new idea with open arms. But it is surely also a tacit admission of failure.

For decades the world's retailers have been wrestling with the problem of queues at the checkout, but never really found an acceptable solution.

Take it or leave it

Either they are happy with a take-it-or-leave it approach, knowing that shoppers will be equally frustrated at the competition. Or they merrily subject their customers to a variety of frustrating and technically immature self-scanning solutions.

Amazon Go (photo: Amazon)
Blessing or curse: Amazon go c-store in Seattle (photo: Amazon)
Given the time and effort they have put into the matter, if retail CEOs had any pride, they would be ashamed that it needed a tech company to solve their checkout problems for them.

They have also signally failed to exploit the checkout as a unique interface with the customer. Instead of using the cash till procedure as a wonderful marketing tool for positive interaction with the customer, retail executives have allowed it to become a negative image for the whole industry.

With very few exceptions world-wide, customers are greeted at the Point of Sale by a generally downtrodden, badly motivated and poorly trained set of individuals, who of course in our macho world are generally women. Having dished out this negative corporate PR, retailers then complain that they are finding it ever harder to recruit young staff.

Modern Times

What a mistake to make! At the most neuralgic point within your store, where customers part with their hard-earned money, they are harassed along a factory-type conveyor belt. Even the most loyal and frequent shoppers are lucky to gain eye contact with the cashier, let alone receive a warm and friendly greeting.

At most, employers have forced their staff to bark a surly good-day, followed by a reproachful "Payback card, yes or no?", and then, with a king-size boot to the backside, a very relieved goodbye. If there is charm at the checkout, it is because female charm is such a wonderful, life-giving principle that, despite the odds, it occasionally beats the mass retailing system devised by men.

One only needs to compare this experience with the good-natured sales banter one hears from a stall tender at a traditional food market to know that retailing does not have to be like this. It can be a forum of communication, a chance to bond and nurture customer loyalty as well as a vital source of feedback.

In fact, the demise of the checkout hailed by "Amazon go" represents at least the second time a tech company has outretailed the retailer. Just see the way Apple creates a buzz in its bright, spacious outlets and then experience the grim ambience of an average self-service food store.

Brave New World?

So, is Amazon taking us all to broad sunlit uplands?

As expected in this dawn of the cyber age, the "Amazon go" concept was discussed extensively on the internet within a matter of hours of its announcement earlier this month. Any further comment therefore seems presumptuous. It is also probably futile, when any criticism of what US tech companies create in their relentless search for profit, automatically ranks one among the Flat Earthers.

But, the fact remains that "Amazon go" has the potential to disrupt the lives of millions of lowly paid workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the number of cashiers at 3.5m in the United States alone. This makes it the second most common job in America. If delivery drones also take off one day, a huge flock of van drivers will also reap the wind.

One could go on for ever with such examples, but they are often difficult to quantify. One controversial study by economists Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne indicates that every second job in the US could be at risk within the next two decades.

George Covill, agricultural labourer in the UK (photo courtesy of: Her Majesty's Prisons)
Plus ça change: A 17-year-old agricultural labourer sentenced to three years' imprisonment in England for destroying a threshing machine during the agricultural unrest in the 1870's in reaction to mechanization on the Prairies in the US. Ironically, the culprit was photographed with the high tech of the day (photo courtesy of: Her Majesty's Prisons)
Of course, those who defend the disruptors will have none of this. They claim that for every person who has lost their job to technology at least one new one is created. They also emphasise how workers are freed from mundane and repetitive tasks so that they can devote themselves to intellectually more challenging ones.

Even the most cursory glance at the history of the Industrial Revolution in the West, however, would not exactly encourage the view that our current transition to digital capitalism will run smoothly and happily for all.

It is also a sad reflection on modern times that, despite the brusqueness and sometimes downright rudeness of checkout staff, an increasing number of old people state that a brief few words at a store till every week are their only regular human communication.

Perhaps this is the reason why Amazon only shows bright young things in its promotional videoclip for the new "Amazon go" c-store. If you haven't got a smartphone, you can't be a customer; if you can't consume, you aren't human...

Podcast microphone (photo: Gerhard Seybert-Fotolia)
(photo: Gerhard Seybert-Fotolia)

Podcast. Click arrow to listen to an audio version of the text:

Lebensmittel Zeitung print and digital (photo: LZ)
photo: LZ
Our German B2B newspaper, Lebensmittel Zeitung, in print & digital
Read in German: 'Kassenlose Gesellschaft' by IT editor Birgitt Loderhose and 'Amazons großer Wurf' by online editor Jens Holst in
Lebensmittel Zeitung, no. 49, 09.12.2016. Readers are also referred to 'Amazon enthüllt Supermarkt Go' by online editor Manuela Ohs on our German website (paywall)

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Comments for this article are closed.

  1. Len Lewis
    Created 20 December, 2016 16:43 | Permanent link

    Amazon Go

    This was an excellent, thoughtful commentary, not only about the supermarket industry but the failure of retailing at large. Thank you.

  2. Jeff Kelly
    Created 23 December, 2016 12:32 | Permanent link


    Finally a well-thought-out counter-argument to this new retail concept by Amazon. Excellent.

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