Amazon Go: Is The Time Right For Seamless Commerce?

Amazon Go Is An Example of Seamless Commerce

About a week ago, Amazon put out another video, showing off how innovative they are. Just like last years Amazon Drone video (otherwise known as Amazon Prime Air, it featured very cool, new, forward-thinking ideas. This time, a retail environment.

Here is the video for your reference:

(BTW, what is the deal with the “Go” thing? You’ve got Lara Croft Go video games you know Pokémon Go,  first video games and now will everything have “Go” added to depict a smaller, faster, lighter, cooler version of things? I mean what’s next?  Citibank Go, RollerBlades Go, or Napping GO!)

This video is a great example of something I was envisioning as part of my Seamless World concept about 4 years ago, around the same time that they say they starting thinking about it (great minds, eh?)

The Seamless World is based on the concept that the systems around us will eventually get smart enough to do things for us without asking. The technology that we currently struggle with in order to simply get stuff done will simply recede into the background, and things will just happen, seemingly by magic, as Arthur C. Clarke so aptly put it:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Brick and mortar retail is broken in a lot of ways. You walk into these places and walk around and around the place looking for the thing that you’re looking for (ever been to Home Depot or Frys Electronics – they have everything but it’s so scattered around you need a compass and a sextant to find anything).  Eventually, you wander around the place until you finally get a basket full of stuff.  You go to the front of the store and what is there but an incredibly long line of people trying to check out of the store.  You already have your basket of stuff and all you want to do is leave. The retail experience takes forever, which drives more and more people online. Hence Amazon Go.

The technology is there in order to make the whole purchase process seamless.

Seamless Commerce goes like this:

  • walk into a store
  • pick up what you want
  • walk out

In the background,

  • Before you enter the store, you have an app on your phone which is tied to the retailer
  • As you walk into the store, scanners detect your phone and confirm that it’s you via a combination of facial, gait, height and other sensors
  • As you walk around the store picking up items and placing them in your bag, (which may or may not be provided by the retailer) the app on your smartphone detects that this item is near your phone. As both you and the item travel together through the store, it assumes that you have picked up the item and are carrying them with you.
  • Once the item has left its initial location, and is confirmed that it is traveling with you, then the item is added to your cart in the app
  • If you decide to return the item back to the shelf, it will detect that the item has left the proximity of your smartphone, and deduct it from your cart
  • Once you are done shopping, you walk towards the exit
  • As you leave, door scanners confirm the items that you are carrying which map to the items in your cart, and your card is charged. At the same time, any security measures on the items are disabled.

The Amazon Go model is similar, but you will need to scan your phone at the kiosk on the way in. I’m assuming that you need to scan your phone for the systems to determine that it is you coming into the store.  Apparently, some kind of sophisticated computer vision and other types of sensors are used to determine which products you picked up and which products you carry with you.  It’s unclear if it’s a proximity sensor on the item and its proximity with your phone, which is what determines that you are still carrying the item. As you walk out of the store you don’t have to check out because it knows what you’re carrying with you and will automatically charge you for everything that you have in your bag or your cart or whatever you have to be taking out of the store with you.  That part is very similar to what I’ve talked about above.

The technical details of building this are not very difficult, as long as you’re are willing to make the investment. Every product must have a scannable tag (either Bluetooth or RFID). Detecting that a scannable tag is in the proximity of an app on your smartphone is also not very innovative. Seamless commerce, in the style of Amazon Go, is finally doable.

What’s very interesting about this is that even though its feels very innovative, all it does is allow you to have the same type of retail experience but better.  It’s still not the best retail experience because you still must wander around the store, trying to find where that product is and put it in your cart and walk out, right? It’s a good browse and buy experience, but that’s not really what we do anymore when it comes to commerce. It’s one of the retail experiences we may elect to have but I think what we prefer is to “shop” (as in selecting our products) prior to coming into the store.

Why do we have to wander the store at all? Why not just buy our stuff online before we get there, and have it ready for us, ala Curbside?

The solution is a merging of the online and offline worlds, and its requires a return to the catalog store of old.

When I was growing up in Canada, we had several retailers that were both in-store and mail order catalog based, (Eaton’s & Sears) and several smaller catalog only chains (Consumers Distributing & Shoprite). If you aren’t familiar with the catalog stores of the time, they had no retail locations where you could browse and buy. You got the catalog in the mail, then filled out and mailed in an order form and they would ship you the product, or you could call in your order, or even better you could go to the “store”, which was basically a counter with a number of catalogs on it, flip through the catalogs, fill out the form, give it to the guy at the counter, and they would go into the back to retrieve your items, and you would pay and go. This model persisted from the 50s to the mid-80s then disappeared.

If you think about it, if you ask me the time is ripe for the return of the catalog store, but instead of flipping through a catalog, its front-ended by a rich online purchasing experience.

You go online, purchase what you want to purchase and then you tell it that you will pick it up at the nearest store. As above, you can scan your phone on the way in, or it can just detect who you are, and direct you to your pre-packaged order. Why would you even need to have a retail location where people can walk around and browse? You just need a place for people to pick up their product and go.

While delivery to Amazon Lockers is interesting (they do feel futuristic, if you have ever used one), they ultimately won’t support this model. The most powerful model, if you ask me, is the perfect blend of offline and online modalities.  The online model gives you the ultimate in selection and the offline model gives you the ultimate in convenience.

You could conceivably have a completely unmanned catalog store style mini-warehouse, where robots do the picking, pulling your order together, and have it sitting there waiting for you as you walk in and get it.

While this is even better, there is an even further out model – where the systems around you predict what you need, and automatically ship things to you so that they get to you at the exact time and place you need them, but that’s the topic for a future post, and true Seamless Commerce…