Amazon opens a Whole Foods with the next stage of automation
“Do you want to connect with your palm?”
That’s the question a cheery Amazon employee asked me last week at the opening of a Whole Foods Market in Washington’s Glover Park neighborhood. She cheerfully added, “You can also start shopping by scanning the QR code in your Amazon app.”
“Let’s go for the palm,” I said.
In less than a minute, I scanned both hands on a kiosk and linked them to my Amazon account. Then I waved my right palm over the turnstile reader to enter the most technologically advanced grocery store in the country.
For the next 30 minutes, I shopped. I picked up a bag of cauliflower florets, grapefruit sparkling water, a carton of strawberries, and a package of organic chicken sausages. Cameras and sensors recorded my every move, creating a virtual basket for me in real time. Then I just walked out, no cashier needed. Whole Foods – or rather Amazon – would charge my account later.
More than four years ago, Amazon bought Whole Foods for $13 billion. Now, the Amazonization of the grocery chain is physically complete, as seen in the revamped Whole Foods store in Glover Park.
For a long time, Amazon has taken only baby steps to put its mark on more than 500 Whole Foods stores in the United States and Britain. The main evidence of change were discounts and free home delivery for Amazon Prime members.
But this 21,000 square foot Whole Foods just north of Georgetown propelled Amazon’s involvement forward. Along with another prototype Whole Foods store, which will open in Los Angeles this year, Amazon has designed My Local Grocer to be almost entirely run by tracking and robotic tools for the first time.
The technology, known as Just Walk Out, consists of hundreds of cameras with a bird’s-eye view of customers. Sensors are placed under each apple, brick of oatmeal and ball of multigrain bread. Behind the scenes, deep learning software analyzes purchase activity to detect patterns and increase the accuracy of its charges.
The technology is comparable to that of driverless cars. It identifies when we lift a product from a shelf, freezer or product bin; automatically details the goods; and bills us when we leave the store. Anyone with an Amazon account, not just Prime members, can shop this way and avoid a cash register since the invoice appears in our Amazon account.
Amazon has been testing this automation for more than four years, starting with 24 Amazon Go convenience stores and multiple Amazon Fresh grocery stores across the country. The palm-scanning technology, known as Amazon One, is also licensed by others, such as a Hudson convenience store at Dulles International Airport near Washington and the Big Chicken restaurant in Shaquille O’ Neal at the Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle.
These stores have been valuable experiences, said Dilip Kumar, vice president of physical retail and technology at Amazon. The company sees Whole Foods as another step in its technology expansion into retail stores, he said.
“We looked at areas that were causing friction for customers, and we worked diligently backwards to find ways to alleviate that friction,” Kumar said. “We’ve always noticed that customers don’t like queuing at checkouts. It’s not the most productive use of their time, which is how we came up with the idea to build Just Walk Out.
He declined to say whether Amazon plans to roll out the technology to all Whole Foods stores.
My New York Times colleague Karen Weise, who covers Amazon from Seattle, said the company operates on long horizons, with the patience and money to run slowly. It allowed her to transform work, retail and logistics for many years, she said. The grocery store is only part of his ambitions.
The Whole Foods in Glover Park has been running for over 20 years, the cornerstone of a neighborhood that’s within walking distance of Embassy Row and the Vice President’s Naval Observatory residence. Four years ago, the store closed following a dispute with the owner and an infestation of rats. Amazon announced last year that it would reopen the store as part of a Just Walk Out pilot project.
The rats may be gone, but the neighborhood angst has not. The renovated store has sparked a heated local debate, with residents clashing on the Nextdoor community app and a neighborhood mailing list over the store’s “dystopian” feel over its “awesome technology.” Some neighbors recalled how the store invited people to just hang out, with free samples and fluffy blueberry pancakes sold on weekends.
Alex Levin, 55, a resident of Glover Park for 18 years, said people shouldn’t dismiss the store’s changes.
“We need to understand the pros and cons of technology and use it to our advantage,” he said. He added that he tried to fool cameras and sensors by placing a box of chicken nuggets in his shopping bag and then putting the item back in a freezer. Amazon was not fooled and it was not charged for the nuggets, he said.
But others said they found errors in their invoices and complained about the end of products by the pound. Everything is now offered by article, bundle or box. Some mourned the disappearance of the payline, where they browsed through magazines and last-minute articles. Many were wary of tracking technology.
“It’s like ‘1984’ by George Orwell,” said Allen Hengst, 72, a retired librarian.
Amazon said it does not plan to use Whole Foods’ video and other customer information for advertising or its recommendation engine. Shoppers who do not wish to participate in the experimental technology can enter the store without logging in and pay at self-service checkout kiosks with a credit card or cash.
As a longtime customer of Whole Foods in Glover Park, I had missed the dark, cramped and often chaotic store and was excited to explore the changes. But somewhere between the palm scan and the six-pack bananas, I started to feel ambivalent.
I noticed a sign near the entrance that prohibited shoppers from taking pictures or videos inside. My eyes drifted up to the ceiling, where I noticed hundreds of small black plastic boxes hanging from the rafters.
An employee intervened. “These are the cameras that will follow you during your shopping experience,” she explained, without any irony.
Several workers moved around the entrance to guide customers through check-in, while others stood behind the seafood counter, cheese shop and produce areas. Mr. Kumar said the stores would still employ humans, but I wondered for how much longer. Amazon, under scrutiny for its work practices, said employee roles could shift over time and focus more on interacting with customers to answer questions.
There were harbingers of a more self-service future. At the bakery, I looked for someone to slice my $4.99 Harvest Bread and was directed to an industrial-grade bread slicer for customers. A savvy little label: Sharp blades. Keep hands away from all moving parts.
Mr. Kumar didn’t want to share data on the accuracy of Just Walk Out, so I tested the technology. I picked up an organic avocado and placed it on top of a pile of non-organic avocados. After shopping around the store, I went back and picked up the same organic avocado. If the cameras and sensors were working properly, Amazon would know about my actions and charge me for the organic avocado that was misplaced in the conventional trash can.
When I was ready to go, I had the option of using a self-checkout kiosk or skipping the process. I opted for the latter and again waved my palm over an exit turnstile. The arms of the turnstile opened.
“You should receive your receipt within two to three hours,” an employee said at the outlet.
I came out. It was disconcerting, as if I could be mistaken for a shoplifter.
An email from Amazon landed in my inbox an hour later. A link sent me to my Amazon account for more details. He said my shopping experience lasted 32 minutes 26 seconds. My total bill was $34.35 – and I was correctly billed for the organic avocado.