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Amazon Is Offering Its Cashierless Store Technology to Other Retailers

After four years of experimenting with its Amazon Go stores, Amazon is now offering its cashierless store technology to other retailers. The technology, known as “Just Walk Out,” eliminates checkout lines, offering an “effortless” shopping experience and shifting store associates to “more valuable activities.”

The company posted a brief description of how this works and a FAQ page, which includes an email address for those who are interested.

Just Walk Out leverages “the same type of technologies used in self-driving cars: computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning.” These allow customers to enter a store with a credit card, fill a basket, and guess what? ... just walk out. The credit card is charged when the customer leaves the store, and the customer can also get an email receipt if they have provided an email address.

The technology can be retrofitted in existing store layouts and, for new construction, Amazon will “work with retailers as part of [their] construction or remodeling plans.”

Just Walk Out does not completely eliminate store associates, who would still need to “greet and answer shoppers’ questions, stock shelves, check IDs for the purchase of certain goods, and more.” They may also accept cash as payment, following a backlash in Philadelphia and San Francisco, which banned cashless stores last year.

Our Take

As always with new technologies, there are questions such as:

  • Is it real? Has anyone done this before?
  • Can we win? Will this work for us?
  • Is it worth doing?

The answers are, respectively:

  • Yes, Amazon has been experimenting with its Go stores for four years.
  • It remains to be seen – retrofitting existing stores can be a challenge. There have been reports of low ceilings causing problems for cameras. The technology itself is not perfect – see our blueprint Mitigate Machine Bias on biases in AI/machine learning including facial recognition. Customers are also required to put goods back on the shelves in exactly the same spot where they took them from or risk being charged. And several more kinks will need to be worked out.
  • Probably. I can definitely see a future where convenience stores, supermarkets and perhaps pharmacies are automated. Maybe even department stores? There are substantial labour cost savings to be had despite assurances that store associates will still be needed. (Yes, some, but not as many.) And consumers will be willing to experiment with cashierless stores. Just look around – we don’t socialize anymore, at least not in the physical world. And no checkout lines? Sign me up!

Why not also throw in augmented reality (AR) and voice interfaces so that you could point your phone to a piece of fish and see how fresh it is, where it was caught, and maybe also a few suggestions on how to cook it? (Or maybe it will be a combination of voice and AR.) Taking this further, why not also connect the shopper to a famous chef for an impromptu one-on-one cooking lesson or a celebrity fashion stylist to help accessorize those jeans? I say a lot of this tongue in cheek of course, but this is the direction in which our society seems to be moving, no?

And there are other questions to ask:

First, why is Amazon selling its competitive technology? What’s in it for the company? Well, the answer is that this is a continuation of its expansion into brick-and-mortar stores. Alibaba in China is pursuing the same strategy with its New Retail initiative. For example, it rolled out chatbot technology it had perfected internally to 600 businesses that now use it in their own call centers. Alibaba is also helping to digitize brick-and-mortar retailers, bringing them online and upgrading to new generation retail tech. And, as usual, the first mover reaps most rewards – market dominance.

Several analysts, including this one, are also curious as to what Amazon will be doing with our email addresses and other information it will be collecting: not just what you shop for but also location data and video and images from cameras. How long will that footage will be stored, how will it be used, and who will have access to it?

Amazon says that it will “only collect the data needed to provide shoppers with an accurate receipt” and that “shoppers can think of this as similar to typical security camera footage.” Well, given the scandal around Clearview AI, as we wrote about earlier this year, a bit more clarity would be helpful.

I’m convinced this data will be used to further improve accuracy of Just Walk Out deep learning models that track and identify customers and their purchases. How will consent be obtained and by whom? What if I want to opt out and not share my personal data? (Shopping data is personal data. And while some may argue that we have lost that battle with online shopping and loyalty rewards programs, should we give up these last vestiges of privacy? Maybe we don’t have a choice anymore … )

Moreover, machine learning models like deep learning mentioned above typically rely on tagged data – this is a person, this is an apple, etc. – and that labeling is often outsourced to data labeling farms in China. Even if you use North American data labeling firms, many of them use freelancers around the world. Which raises questions around what cultural, societal and personal biases they may be encoding into the training data. (And this impacts model accuracy and may also lead to discrimination.) And how will individual privacy be protected?

So, lots of important questions to consider.

If you are a retailer considering Just Walk Out, we’d love to speak with you. And if you are “just” concerned about data privacy or unethical, biased uses of AI, give us a call too.

Want to Know More?

Mitigate Machine Bias

Clearview AI Demonstrates the Dangers of Facial Recognition

Privacy Activists Call for the US Government to Block Google’s Acquisition of Fitbit

We have a lot more research around privacy. Visit our privacy resources online or give us a call.

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