Amazon launches Whole Foods with next phase of automation

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Amazon launches Whole Foods with next phase of automation

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

The same question was asked by a cheerful Amazon employee last week while congratulating me on the opening of a Whole Foods Market in Washington’s Glover Park neighborhood. “You can even start shopping by scanning the QR code in your Amazon app,” she said boldly.

“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 I turned my right palm over the turnstile reader to enter the most technologically sophisticated grocery store in the country.

For the next 30 minutes, I shopped. I picked up a bag of cauliflower florets, sparkling grapefruit water, 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 rather Amazon — will bill my account later.

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

For a long time, Amazon took only small steps toward making its mark at more than 500 Whole Foods stores in the United States and Britain. Key proof of change were discounts and free home delivery for Amazon Prime members.

But this 21,000-square-foot Whole Foods hotel just north of Georgetown has spurred Amazon involvement. Along with another prototype Whole Foods store that will open in Los Angeles this year, Amazon has designed My Local Grocer to be run almost entirely by tracking and robotic tools for the first time.

The technology, known as Just Walk Out, consists of hundreds of cameras, which allow customers to see through the eyes of God. Sensors have been placed at the bottom of each apple, carton of oatmeal, and a bouquet of multigrain breads. Behind the scenes, deep-learning software analyzes buying activity to detect patterns and increase the accuracy of its charges.

The technology can be compared to driverless cars. It recognizes when we lift a product off the shelf, freezer or produce bin; automatically items the goods; And charge 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 bill shows up in our Amazon account.

Amazon has been testing this kind of automation for more than four years, starting with 24 Amazon Go convenience stores and several Amazon Fresh grocery stores nationwide. 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 Shaquille O’Neill’s at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle. Big Chicken Restaurant.

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Those stores were valuable experiments, said Dilip Kumar, Amazon’s vice president of physical retail and technology. He said the company is treating Whole Foods as another step in its technological expansion into retail stores.

“We looked at the areas that caused friction for customers, and we worked diligently backwards to figure out ways to reduce that friction,” Mr. Kumar said. “We’ve always seen that customers didn’t like standing in checkout lines. It’s not the most productive use of their time, that’s how we came up with the idea of ​​creating Just Walk Out.”

He declined to comment on whether Amazon planned 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 over a long time horizon, with patience and money to execute slowly. She said this has allowed labor, retail and logistics to change over many years. Groceries are just one piece of its ambitions.

Whole Foods has operated for more than 20 years in Glover Park, a cornerstone of a neighborhood that is within walking distance of Embassy Row and the Vice President’s Naval Observatory residence. Four years ago, the shop was closed due to a dispute with the landlord and killing of rats. Amazon announced last year that it would be reopening the store as a Just Walk Out pilot project.

Mice can go away, but not to the anger of the neighbourhood. The renovated store has sparked a spirited local debate, with residents feuding over the Nextdoor community app and a neighborhood email list over the store’s “dystopian” spirit versus its “impressive technology.” Some neighbors reminisced how the store used to invite people to just hang out, with free samples and fluffy blueberry pancakes sold on the weekends.

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

“We need to understand the advantages and disadvantages of technology and use it to our advantage,” he said. He said he had tried to trick the cameras and sensors by placing a box of chicken nuggets in his shopping bag and then putting the item back in the freezer. Amazon was not fooled, and was not charged for the nuggets, he said.

But others said they had found errors in their bills and complained about the end of yield by the pound. Everything is now offered per item, bundle or box. Some mourned the disappearance of the checkout line, where they saw magazines and last-minute grab bag items. Many were skeptical of the tracking technology.

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

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Amazon said it does not plan to use videos and other Whole Foods customer information for advertising or its recommendation engine. Shoppers who don’t want to participate in the experimental technology can enter the store without signing in and pay with a credit card or cash at a self-checkout kiosk.

As a longtime customer of Glover Park’s Whole Foods, I missed the dark, cramped and often chaotic store and was excited to find out the changes. But somewhere between palm scans and bundles of six-pack bananas, I began to feel bisexual.

I saw a sign near the entrance that forbade shoppers from taking photos or videos inside. I looked up to the ceiling, where I saw hundreds of small black plastic boxes hanging from the ceiling.

One employee jumped. “They are the cameras that will follow you throughout your shopping experience,” she explained, showing no signs of irony.

Several employees mingled about the entrance to guide customers through check-in, while others stood behind seafood counters, cheese stations and production areas. Mr. Kumar said stores will always employ humans, but I wondered how long that would be. Amazon, under scrutiny for its labor practices, said employees’ roles may 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 looked for someone to cut my $4.99 Harvest Loaf and was directed to an industry-grade bread slicer for customers. A little label warned: Sharp blades. Keep hands away from all moving parts.

Mr. Kumar won’t share data on the accuracy of Just Walk Out, so I tested the technique. I picked up an organic avocado and put it on a pile of nonorganic avocados. After a walk around the store, I went back and picked up the same organic avocado. If the cameras and sensors work properly, Amazon will be on top of my actions and charge me for the organic avocados I lost in the traditional bin.

When I was ready to go, I had the option of using the self-checkout kiosk or skipping the process. I decided on the latter and waved my palm again at an exit turnstile. The arms of the turnstile opened.

“You should get your receipt within two to three hours,” said an exiting employee.

I went outside. It felt inconvenient, like I could be mistaken for a shoplifter.

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

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