Amazon go forces staff to go
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 itEither 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.
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.
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.
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.
So, is Amazon taking us all to broad sunlit uplands?
Brave New World?
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.
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. Click arrow to listen to an audio version of the text: