Amazon Unlocks Whole Foods With The Next Step In Automation

“Would you like to log in with your palm?”

it was a funny question Amazon At the opening of Whole Foods Market in Washington’s Glover Park neighborhood last week, an employee posed to greet me. He happily added, “You can also start shopping by scanning the QR code on your Amazon app.”

“Let’s go for the palm,” I said.

In less than a minute I scanned both hands at a kiosk and linked them to my Amazon account. Then, running my right palm over the turnstile reader, I entered the most technologically advanced grocery store in the country.

I shopped for the next 30 minutes. I bought a bag of cauliflower florets, grapefruit juice, a carton of strawberries and a pack of organic chicken sausages. Cameras and sensors recorded my every move, creating a virtual shopping cart for me in real time. Then I went out without the need for the cashier. Whole Foods – more precisely, Amazon – would bill my account later.

More than four years ago, Amazon Acquired Whole Foods for $13 billion. The conversion of the grocery chain to Amazon is physically complete, as the revamped Whole Foods store in Glover Park demonstrates.

For a long time, Amazon took only small steps to make its mark on more than 500 Whole Foods stores in the United States and the UK. The main proof of change was discounts and free home delivery for Amazon Prime members.

But this 21,000-square-foot Whole Foods just north of Georgetown has pushed Amazon’s involvement forward. Alongside another prototype Whole Foods store to open in Los Angeles this year, Amazon designed my local grocery store for the first time to run almost entirely with tracking and robotic tools.

The technology, known as Just Walk Out, consists of hundreds of cameras that customers look up to as gods. Sensors are placed under each apple, a carton of oatmeal and multigrain bread. Behind the scenes, deep learning software analyzes shopping activity to detect patterns and improve the accuracy of their fees.

The technology is comparable to that in self-driving cars. Defines when we remove a product from the shelf, freezer or product box; automatically sorts the goods; and it charges us when we leave the store. Anyone with an Amazon account, not just Prime members, can shop this way and skip the cash register as the invoice appears on our Amazon account.

Amazon has been testing this type of automation for over four years, Starting with 24 Amazon Go stores and several Amazon Fresh grocery stores nationwide. The palm-scan technology, known as Amazon One, is also licensed by others, including a Hudson convenience store at Dulles International Airport near Washington and Shaquille O’Neal’s Big Chicken restaurant at Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena.

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

“We observed the areas causing friction for customers and worked diligently backwards to find ways to alleviate that friction,” said Mr Kumar. “We’ve always noticed that customers don’t like waiting at the checkout. That’s not the most efficient use of their time, but that’s how the idea to build Just Walk Out came about.”

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

My New York Times colleague Karen Weise, who covers Amazon from Seattle, said the company is working on long-term horizons and is working with patience and money to run it slowly. This allowed him to transform labor, retail and logistics “For many years,” he said. groceries only part of their ambition.

Whole Foods in Glover Park has operated as a neighborhood cornerstone for more than 20 years, within walking distance of Embassy Row and the vice president’s Marine Observatory residence. Four years ago, the store closed due to a disagreement 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 be gone, but it’s not a concern in the neighborhood. The revamped store sparked a lively local discussion with residents sparring over the Nextdoor community app and a neighborhood email list serving the store’s “impressive tech” versus “dystopian” feel. Some neighbors reminded me of how the store invites people to just hang out, with free samples and fluffy blueberry pancakes sold on weekends.

Alex Levin, 55, an 18-year Glover Park resident, said people shouldn’t reject changes at the store.

“We have to understand the benefits and drawbacks of technology and use it to our advantage,” he said. He added that he tried to trick cameras and sensors by putting a box of chicken wings in his shopping bag and then putting the product back in the freezer. Amazon wasn’t duped and blamed for the nuggets, he said.

But others said they found errors on their bills and complained that the product was expiring by the pound. Now everything is offered on the basis of product, package or box. Some mourned the disappearance of the checkout line, where they scoured magazines and last-minute handbag items. Many were skeptical of the tracking technology.

“It’s like George Orwell’s ‘1984’,” said Allen Hengst, 72, a retired librarian.

Amazon said it doesn’t plan to use video and other Whole Foods customer information for its advertising or recommendation engine. Shoppers who don’t want to engage in experimental technology can enter the store without logging in and pay with credit card or cash at self-check kiosks.

As a long time Glover Park Whole Foods customer I had missed the dark, cramped and often chaotic store and was excited to discover the changes. But somewhere between palm scans and six-packs of bananas, I’m starting to feel indecisive.

I noticed a sign near the entrance prohibiting shoppers from taking photos or videos inside. My eyes darted to the ceiling and I noticed hundreds of tiny black plastic boxes hanging from the rafters.

An employee jumped. “These are the cameras that will follow you during your shopping experience,” he explained, with no sign of irony.

Several workers roamed the entrance to guide customers through check-in, while others stood behind the seafood counter, cheese station, and production areas. Mr. Kumar said that stores will always employ people, but I wondered how long it would take. Amazon, under scrutiny for labor practicesHe said the roles of employees may change over time and focus more on interacting with customers to answer questions.

There were early signs of a more self-service future. I looked for someone to slice my $4.99 Harvest loaf in the oven and was referred to an industry-grade bread slicer for customers. A small tag warns: Sharp knives. Keep your hands away from all moving parts.

Mr. Kumar would not share data on the accuracy of Just Walk Out, so I tested the technology. I bought an organic avocado and placed it on top of the non-organic avocado pile. After walking around the store, I went back and bought the same organic avocado. If the cameras and sensors were working properly, Amazon would be on top of my actions and blame me for the organic avocado thrown in the traditional trash.

When I was ready to leave, I had the option to use the self checkout kiosk or skip the transaction. I settled on the latter and waved my palm again at an exit turnstile. The arms of the tourniquet opened.

“You will receive your receipt in two to three hours,” said an employee at the checkout.

I went out. I felt uncomfortable, as if I might have been mistaken for a thief.

An hour later, an email from Amazon landed in my inbox. A link sent me to my Amazon account for details. He said my shopping experience took 32 minutes and 26 seconds. My total bill was $34.35 and I was correctly charged for organic avocado.

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