This article was written by Chris Walton for Forbes.com on April 22, 2021 and is now available on Omni Talk.
Here is what Bloomberg has reported thus far, according to its review of planning documents for the Brookfield site:
- The store will be full service, replete with a butcher counter
- The store will have electronic gates for exit and entry (similar to Amazon Go)
- The store will have large-scale ceiling mounts for cameras (also similar to Amazon Go)
- The store will be about 34,000 square feet, with roughly 20,000 square feet of selling space
- And the store will still have traditional checkout counters
No mention, however, was made of when the store would open.
Amazon declined to comment on the speculation both for Bloomberg and for this article, but did confirm, for context, that Amazon currently has 22 Amazon Go stores, 2 Amazon Go Grocery stores, and 12 Amazon Fresh grocery stores currently in operation within the U.S., along with plans for another 4 Amazon Fresh stores in the near future.
This context and Bloomberg’s report today matter for one specific reason: Math.
What Bloomberg is highlighting here is no overnight sensation. Amazon’s Just Walk Out technology has been roughly 5 to 6 years in the making already.
Checkout the timeline:
- November 2015 — Amazon opens its first physical bookstore
- January 2018 — Amazon opens its first Amazon Go store
- February 2020 — Amazon opens its first Amazon Go Grocery store
- September 2020 — Amazon opens its first Amazon Fresh full scale grocery store
The multi-year experiment likely started with Amazon’s bookstores. At the time (and still today) many people questioned why Amazon would go into the business of physical bookstores, but it was never about the books and likely still isn’t.
In the early days of these bookstores, consumers could shop for books with Amazon’s visual search technology. It is the very same camera search technology everyone can use at home on their Amazon mobile apps today. The technology recognizes products in space and, once identified, serves items up for purchase within Amazon’s app. It is essentially the same core technology that underlies Amazon’s “Just Walk Out” shopping platform. The early experiments of how this technology could work at scale, therefore, likely began in Amazon’s bookstores.
For additional context, the only other retailer that has even publicly talked about using a similar technology at scale over this same period of time and in the same manner is Sam’s Club, and that is in one lab store, Sam’s Club Now, down in Texas.
All other retailers? A big fat zero.
Ever since it opened its first bookstore, Amazon has continued to make its computer vision AI technology even more powerful.
In January 2018, Amazon debuted Amazon Go in Seattle. For the first time, consumers could scan their phones to get into the store (just like they would to get on an airplane), take whatever they wanted off of the shelves, walk out, and pay electronically, similar to how one would pay for an Uber or a Lyft.
The store was approximately 3,000 square feet and, for all intents and purposes, it worked and continues to operate like a garden variety convenience store, only it is fully checkout-free autonomous and powered by the very same visual search recognition found in Amazon’s bookstores, combined with sensor fusion, aka weight sensors in shelves.
Then in February 2020, Amazon launched Amazon Go Grocery in Seattle, Washington. Go Grocery has the same “Just Walk Out” design principles as its Amazon Go brethren. It is just a little bit bigger and more complex. Go Grocery sites are often larger (7,000 to 10,000 square feet) and also sell more core grocery items, like fresh fruits and vegetables.
For those keeping score at home — that’s already three times the square footage in roughly 2 years for Amazon’s “Just Walk Out” tech.
In September 2020, Amazon then launched its full scale Amazon Fresh grocery concept in California. Amazon Fresh stores are roughly 30,000 to 40,000 square feet and operate like traditional grocery stores but with a twist. They come with Amazon return and pickup counters, have voice activated wayfinding, and also, most importantly, they have two forms of checkout: traditional checklanes and Dash Carts.
The Dash Cart was likely Amazon’s first experiment to see if people would desire a checkout-free retail experience in a large scale, full size American grocery store. Similar to Amazon Go, people pair their phones to a Dash Cart, shop, place items in their carts, and then just walk out of the store and pay electronically. The whole experience is designed for small basket trips and people who just want to get in and out of a grocery store quickly.
Then, in 2021, irrespective of the Dash Cart, two more reports have surfaced that Amazon is testing its Just Walk Out technology for full scale grocery operations. The first, again reported by Bloomberg, says that “Just Walk Out” is already in operations for behind the scenes testing in a Naperville, Illinois Amazon Fresh store, and the second, today’s report, says the infrastructure is also being readied for Brookfield, Connecticut.
Given the timelines, it is entirely plausible that Bloomberg’s report today is as real as a heart attack.
For example, technology tends to speed up exponentially, and here everything thus far is still just linear.
Amazon Go happened in 2018 at 1,500 to 3,000 square feet. Go Grocery happened in 2020 at 7,000 to 10,000 square feet. “Go Fresh” (my quotes) sounds like it could happen in 2022, if it isn’t already in Illinois, at 20,000 to 30,000 square feet.
All told, that would be an approximate tripling of square footage every two years. Looking at everything in this way makes it almost a fool’s bet not to think that Amazon will try to deploy a 20,000 to 30,000 square foot “Just Walk Out” autonomous grocery store soon, and especially if said attempt also comes via a hybrid approach that still has traditional checklanes as an option too (which it sounds like Brookfield will have).
The better question though, if one agrees not to take the sucker bet against Amazon, is to ask what does this math all mean for the rest of the industry?
If the reports are true, the only other known pilot implementations of any real size and consequence at this point and that are similar to how Amazon Go’s “Just Walk Out” tech works are Tesco’s pilot in the U.K and Giant Eagle’s GetGo installation near Pittsburgh. Beyond that there is little else. Zip. Zero. Nada. Outside of a few smart cartish or small scale footprint and retailer plays.
All of which means that the majority of the grocery industry is minimally 4 years behind Amazon’s experimentation curve.
Combine this with the other news out of Amazon this week that it also now plans to open up hair salons to test out what it is calling “point-and-learn” technology, which sounds awfully like “Just Walk Out,” and the story gets even more interesting.
If history is any indication, Amazon’s announcement this week isn’t so much about hair care as it is about the next version of its bookstores, i.e. understanding gesture recognition, haptic sensing, and AR in experiential physical retail environments. Combine the lessons from this forthcoming experiment with all the ones learned from the past five to six years on Amazon Go computer vision technology, and quite soon the compounding effects of these experiments could leave grocers feeling more desperate than a famous 80s movie featuring Madonna playing a woman named Susan.
Paraphrasing omnichannel retail expert Anne Mezzenga on a podcast recently, “Beauty tends to be a part of grocery, convenience, and one-stop-shop mass merchant retail experiences, so why couldn’t and shouldn’t Amazon morph ‘point-and-learn’ with ‘Just Walk Out’ tech over time?”
Amazon can, and they likely will, which means everyone else is woefully behind. Until the retail industry wakes up and starts experimenting with the same no fear of failure approach as Amazon, the gap will only grow wider.
If Kroger, Walmart, Target, et al. don’t start having the guts to put their own versions of Amazon Go on the ground floors of the many apartment complexes springing up across the country and to start telling the world all about it in their next earnings calls, the battle over grocery convenience is already lost. Sleeping at the wheel is for autonomous driving, not autonomous grocery tech.
And it’s time for everyone to wake up.
Full scale Amazon Go grocery is coming. It is going to be real. And it is going to be spectacular.
This article was written by Chris Walton for Forbes.com