Why Amazon’s Just Walk Out Retail Experience Feels Creepy

I have a secret. Recently was in a convenience store and picked up a few items and… I just walked out. I didn’t check out, stop at a counter or talk to anyone. I just left. It is not what you think. I wasn’t breaking the rules, but the secret is I still feel creeped out by the whole experience. 

Amazon’s latest twist to replace self-checkouts, which itself was intent on replacing people-based checkouts, is called Just Walk Out. It is a provocative rebranding of Amazon Go Stores. Unlike GO, the Just Walk Out brand is a deployment of the same type of checkout-less technology into other stores. It is fascinating and yet it leaves me with some apprehension about how the data could be used beyond my brief encounter.

Tech Driven Future of Work

My experience in an airport Hudson’s store was as seamless as you would expect from Amazon. I swipe my credit card and walk through a turnstile. From the moment I enter, the ‘system’ is tracking me visually. It is watching my every move along with the other patrons browsing the aisles. There are hundreds of ceiling mounted scanners that remind me of the latest HTC VIVE virtually reality gaming base stations. 

The magical part of the experience is due to this technology. The store and its products otherwise look normal. There are no special display cases that click a switch when I pick up a soda like a hotel mini bar. The snacks are all displayed on shelves with standard packaging – no special RF tags or supersized bar codes for scanners to see. Best of all if I change my mind about a product and put it back, the system knows.  Buying an item from one of these stores is as about simple as fetching cookies from your own pantry. If the goal is to make it simple, seamless and staff free then Amazon has succeeded.

Before the days-of-data we did not think too much about our privacy the way we do now

Data Privacy

Neighborhood Stores
Your Neighborhood Store

Maybe it has always been this way. Before the days-of-data we did not think too much about our privacy the way we do now. In earlier iterations of the neighborhood convenience store, the shop keeper might know your habits and let you know the moment you walk in that they are out of your favorite items or give you a recommendation of something new. The shop keeper knew you and what you liked based on plain old observation. The digitization of that experience has shifted this personal dynamic. With new technology paired to our online shopping experience and merged with other information from data brokers, it is like having every shop keeper grouping together your information. Observing you and at times making wonderfully accurate recommendations. And that is the part that feels creepy.

Amazon promises Just Walk Out will optimize stores and delight customers through its effortless convenience.  Store owners will be able to use data to be more profitable and optimize their inventories through store design (formally known as planograming). This is no surprise since the data science behind product placement and its impact on revenue are well known. What might be surprising in the future is how this data is used in ways we did not expect. Amazon knows my shopping habits. They know my page turn history while reading Old Man and The Sea.  And now they know I like to buy snacks before getting on an airplane. They will know this forever, and yet it is unclear what the value is in having all of all this data in one place. Somehow, though, I am sure Amazon will figure out. 

My opinions are clearly my own.

Bonus: Few shoppers will look up and notice the hundreds of sensors ‘watching’ them.

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