Stefan de Jong


On the 5th of December 2016, Amazon opened its first supermarket, Amazon Go: an (urban) on-the-go supermarket with its shelves literally packed with technology. For instance, by taking the products from the shelf, you automatically add them to the virtual shopping basket in the Amazon Go app. Soon after you leave the store, the items in your basket are paid for through Amazon Payments, without you having to do a thing. So no more waiting in line and even self-checkout is a thing of the past.

Being the (technological) innovation buff I am, my initial reaction when seeing this was: Wow! All the knowledge of Amazon, with all the algorithms, applied to a bricks-and-mortar store! But I’m also a critic by nature and my second reaction was: “What is Amazon aiming to achieve and, more importantly, how does Amazon Go benefit the customer?”

To answer at least the second part of that question, the benefit is that you can do your on-the-go grocery shopping in no time flat and avoid the hassle of queuing up at the checkout. Sounds fantastic! I’m that guy who always manages to join exactly the wrong line, so you can imagine how I feel. As far as doing the actual shopping, I’m a firm believer in far-reaching automation. After all, grocery shopping is a necessary evil we want to get over with as quickly as possible. Or in other words: run-shopping. Anything that can speed up the process makes me, mister impatient, very happy indeed: contactless payments, self-checkouts, great!

But as far as doing anything other than your daily shopping, there’s still quite some room for improvement. Too often I walk into a store where the product I need is out of stock or simply unavailable, or I find myself waiting in line for way too long. Thankfully these are all issues that technology can overcome. Viewing stocks online, self-checkouts, digital screens with outfits and buying advice, cram those shops with all the technology you can. Who wouldn’t be happy?

And you can take efficiency a step further too! At Lowe’s, a home improvement chain in the USA, autonomous robots roam through eleven of the stores to greet and help customers find products. And they probably do a better job than your average Saturday part-timer in most Dutch hardware stores. And then there’s Pepper, recently introduced by Nestlé Japan: a robot that sells Nescafé appliances and one that can give you perfect advice on purchasing the right one.

More efficient? Sure. But it definitely isn’t more personal. Because despite the fact that  Pepper undoubtedly knows everything about the appliances it’s selling, I haven’t exactly warmed up to the idea of conversing with a robot. If you take the formulas of Lowe’s, Nescafé or Amazon to the next level, a store quickly becomes a space with just shelving containing products where, at some point soon, there won’t be a person in sight. In other words, a cold, lifeless space full of technology. If there is no staff wandering through the store anymore, where is the added value? It won’t be long before I can buy absolutely everything my heart desires online and have it delivered to my door the very same day. I guess I’ll just go out for a coffee then.

The more I think about it , the less thrilled I am about all this efficiency. In fact, the stores I truly enjoy when I walk inside are those old-fashioned stores with a counter. And an old-fashioned cash register (with contactless payment, I have to admit). And staff who know me. The butcher, the baker, the tailor, the cobbler; shops with real people who stop for a chat and where you always stay longer than intended. Stores that genuinely make you feel at home.

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