At first blush, Amazon Go – what the e-commerce giant called “a new kind of store with no checkout required” – might seem like a bold step forward in retail. Dubbed Just Walk Out Shopping, Amazon said consumers will use the Amazon Go app to enter the store, take the products they want and leave without any additional hassle.
It’s arguably an advance for so-called seamless shopping, which, at the end of the day, is mostly about getting consumers what they want as easily as possible.
However, if you dig a little deeper, it becomes clear the future of shopping – and even the status quo – calls for much more than simply removing lines and cashiers. And shopping itself – which runs the gamut from milk and toilet paper to wedding rings, sports cars and everything in between – is likely too nuanced to lend itself to Just Walk Out Shopping everywhere.
Here’s why – while intriguing – Amazon Go won’t necessarily revolutionize shopping as consumers know it.
1. Amazon did not invent seamless shopping.
While Amazon may be branding this type of shopping, it cannot take credit for the concept.
In fact, Jason Snyder, CTO of brand experience agency Momentum Worldwide, said seamless shopping has been on the radars of the tech elite since at least 1997, although the idea has evolved since then.
“Frictionless then was simply about disintermediation – buy a CD on the internet instead of at a music store. A novel idea,” Snyder said. “Today it means walk in and walk out without ever touching a payment method.”
And that’s in part because having to wait in line and interact with a cashier is not always the highlight of a customer’s shopping experience.
But Amazon is hardly revolutionary in opting to remove this pain point.
Look at Starbucks, which has a mobile order app that also allows users to order items, pay for them and pick them up, minimizing wait times and interaction.
“It almost seems – I hate to say – obvious,” said Joe Grigsby, managing director at marketing agency iCrossing.
And then there’s Sam’s Club, which has its Scan & Go app, which allows users to scan items as they shop, pay directly from the app and show an e-receipt as they exit.
Similarly, Jason Goldberg, senior vice president of the commerce and content practice at interactive agency Razorfish, pointed to Apple’s app-enabled self-service checkout that also allows users to scan items and walk away, such as in the Apple Store at New York’s Grand Central Terminal.
“It’s a very surreal experience to get off a train, grab an Apple product and pay for it without talking to an employee and then get back on the train,” Goldberg said. “It feels like you shoplifted. And you never showed a receipt.”
2. Seamless is more than checkout-less.
But checkout and payment are hardly the only potential subpar moments in the consumer shopping experience. And that, in turn, is likely why some brands – like Brita, Brother and Whirlpool – are part of the Amazon Dash Replenishment Service, which allows connected devices to tap into Amazon's retail platform to build automatic reordering experiences for frequently ordered products like water filters, ink and detergent.
Here, seamless shopping is more about helping consumers avoid the pain of realizing they have suddenly run out of something.
But a seemingly infinite variety of pain points remain.
And that is perhaps why Laura Moser, shopper marketing practice leader at Momentum, defined frictionless shopping as “a dedicated and ongoing effort to anticipate the needs and desires of customers and solving problems before they experience [them, which allows them to] go down the desired path so they don’t have to think about how to get there or what comes next.”
In other words, frictionless shopping is really the movement of physical retail stores to understand they have to think differently about how they connect and sell to people and, in turn, seeks to make an entire brand more seamless and effective, Moser said.
Or even Macy’s, which revamped the changing rooms in the swimsuit department of one location to include apps and swimwear delivery chutes to help make the dreaded experience of shopping for beachwear less awful and to encourage women to actually come to the store to try on bathing suits, which is something they cannot do online, Moser said.
And there are other as-of-yet unaddressed pain points in shopping for clothes, like, say, having to repeat your size even if you have purchased from a particular retailer previously, Goldberg noted.
“You need to remove friction from all versions of the experience,” he added.
And so before retailers leap to follow Amazon Go’s lead – the proverbial shiny object – they may be better off addressing their own existing UX issues and/or looking for alternate ways to improve the customer experience as it stands today as a means of coloring their own seamless shopping rainbows.
3. Amazon Go is not without its own pain points.
Further, despite its novelty, Amazon Go shoppers will still have to transport the goods they walk out with. And, per Grigsby, the Holy Grail might be taking this concept a step further and actually getting goods to consumers’ homes.
“If I’m really caring about convenience, the inevitable experience is when it comes to me,” Grigsby said. “We are seeing that with Amazon delivery, but also [grocery delivery service] Peapod and [food delivery service] GrubHub and [on-demand delivery service] Postmates – services that allow consumers to more easily order [and] reorder and have [goods] delivered to their homes.”
Plus, even though Amazon Go will make life easier for consumers in certain respects, they still have to physically go to the store.
“Amazon Go is slick, but I think the reality is … it’s nice, but it won’t be dramatically moving the industry,” Grigsby said. “What will is when consumers find something they’re inspired by and want to purchase and we’re making it easy to click a button and for it to be delivered to their homes.”
That is arguably is what Amazon is doing with Alexa, which, in turn, has profound implications for brands and marketers in terms of how to engage consumers who aren’t necessarily making purchase decisions based on what they see on store shelves anymore – or are perhaps even asking Alexa to buy a product without a specific brand name – like, “Alexa, order mac and cheese.” And that means marketers will have to woo the algorithm even more.
“While Go is interesting, it’s not the thing that [will] change the landscape,” Grigsby said.
In other words, the set-it-and-forget-it mentality that consumers enjoy with brands that have Dash implementations or who can ask Alexa to buy macaroni and cheese means consumers may stop thinking about specific brands as much and marketers will have to shift how they communicate, which, for one thing, could lead to more brands offering personalization options as a means of courting consumers, he added.
In other words, while Go has enjoyed the post-announcement spotlight lately, Alexa has perhaps more potential to shake up shopping overall.
4. Consumer privacy could be a sticky wicket.
What’s more, Amazon may face some privacy issues in using what Goldberg called controversial technology with Amazon Go.
“Lots of stores have tracked customers using Wi-Fi signals or cameras. There are a number of legislators that have threatened to regulate that – Nordstrom did a test and had to turn it off,” Goldberg said. “Amazon is wading into potentially dangerous waters with some of those practices. [In theory] you opted in to all of that when you walked into store, but that excuse hasn’t worked perfectly with other retailers, so [the issue of] privacy will be interesting.”
And while consumers who want to shop via Amazon Go will have to show the app to get in the store, Amazon could then theoretically use cameras to uniquely identify faces and allow access thereafter, Goldberg noted.
“Most people shop in groups … so it’s going to be interesting to see how that works in the Amazon store, [too],” Goldberg said. “If that key only lets one person in and is associated with what you put in the cart, what if your toddler comes in and grabs a box of cereal? What does Amazon do? There are a whole host of unanswered questions.”
5. Consumers shop for a lot of stuff.
Consumers shop differently for different products and while he conceded consumers will appreciate easier shopping experiences overall, Goldberg noted self-service, employee-less shopping is not likely to infiltrate every sector.
“When we just need milk for cereal in the morning, we probably don’t want to interact with a person and want the fastest experience and Go makes a lot of sense,” he said. “But when you’re shopping for a wedding dress, you want the expert opinion of a trusted salesperson … there isn’t really ever one mode of shopping.”
What’s more, consumers won’t likely want their refrigerators to automatically reorder milk when it could potentially be delivered while they are at work and sit on their doorsteps for hours.
“There are some things I want to buy when I decide, like milk for my cereal, and there are some things I want to be an exciting, pleasurable, immersive experience, like plumbing fixtures for [my] house or shopping for a new outfit for a date,” Goldberg said. “There is a place for all of those things, but they need to get easier and faster than they are now.”
Moser agreed there are certain shopping scenarios that call for in-store engagement, like the pharmacy.
Or, as Sean MacDonald, chief digital officer of marketing firm McCann, put it: "Go, true to its name, is … going to reinvent the role of the grocery express lane in people’s lives. With the option to Just Walk Out, shoppers will be able to turn to grocery stores even more for on-the-go meals throughout the day.”
That being said, Amazon Go offers the potential for some pretty compelling data that hasn’t been previously available, such as consumers who pick up a product, but don’t purchase it.
“That’s an important data point and Amazon will know who I am and that I picked up a product and looked at it and put it down, but the one who bought is this other person – and that’s really important data,” Grigsby said. “There’s a nuance there that can be extremely powerful…that gives [Amazon] important insights in deciding what kind of products to put on its shelves.”
And MacDonald went as far as saying data like this could actually change the shopping experience.
“As stores get smarter about [who] you are, the typical experience of walking down aisles may start to feel tedious,” he said. “Why do I need to pass by thousands of products when the store already knows what I like? Without having to worry about the logistical burden of lines that can make the traditional grocery experience at times uninspiring, shopping in-store alternatively could place a higher premium on discovery. Grocery stores could become like showrooms, where these shoppers can discover and try new products.”
For her part, however, Shirley Romig, vice president and global retail strategy lead at agency SapientNitro, said she believes Amazon Go is a platform that can be applied to any transaction that requires a purchase.
“My prediction is that this test store is set up as a grocery store for now due to the SKU-intensive and high-turn nature of the grocery store,” she said. “As the proof of concept is established, Amazon will look to the most efficient path to profitable and defensible revenue, which may be a licensing model.”