Amazon’s Grocery Dystopia Is Over — And That’s a Good Thing

Shopping for chips and toilet paper never needed to be high-tech.

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Exterior view of an Amazon Go store with signage, tinted with purple and yellow hues for a stylized ...
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There’s far less to “disrupt” in the grocery shopping experience than tech companies originally assumed. Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods in 2017 seemed like a warning.

Amazon revolutionized online shopping and with Whole Foods, one of the most well-regarded chains in the U.S., it was going to reimagine shopping at supermarkets using technology — a camera-tracking wizardry system called Just Walk Out — that would let shoppers walk into a store and then walk out with products, all without having to pay at a cashier.

Just Walk Out was supposed to make trips to the supermarket faster and, without needing to engage with a cashier or self-checkout kiosk, a potentially more pleasant shopping experience. The reality, however, has been full of far more fits and starts than Amazon, and really anyone else, expected.

After spending several years finding new ways to integrate tech and streamline the shopping experience from corner mini-marts to proper grocery stores, Amazon has pulled back on that ambitious vision over the past few years. The company has shut down pretty much every one of its physical retail stores that aren't selling food, and more recently, gave up Just Walk Out in the U.S. The company is removing Just Walk Out from its grocery stores, The Information reports.

While the initial thinking was that Just Walk Out would modernize and reinvent shopping for 21st-century lifestyles, I’m glad Amazon is winding down its high-tech approach — and it’s not just because the cameras tracking you and products inside of a store felt dystopian.

Amazon’s Grand Vision for Reinventing Grocery Shopping

Just Walk Out relies on cameras to track what customers put in their cart while shopping.

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Amazon introduced Just Walk Out in 2016 as part of its Amazon Go concept, a small, 7-Eleven-style market with a few basic groceries and prepared food. What was supposed to make Go marts better than other convenience stores was that you’d never have to wait in line to pay. You entered, scanned your phone at a turnstile, and then shopped as you normally would. Cameras placed all over the store used computer vision to track where you went, what you grabbed, and adjusted your cart accordingly even when you removed items and didn’t put them back on their original shelves. And when you left, Amazon only charged you for the things you actually left with.

Just Walk Out was supposed to make the shopping experience easier by de-emphasizing checkout, which is typically the annoying part of shopping. But it also made shopping much closer to being friction-free. It’s easier to buy more when you’re not forced to think about how much something costs and if you actually need it while waiting in line. Just Walk Out wasn’t quite as simple as the impulse buying Amazon’s “1-Click” creates for online shopping, but it was close.

It’s easier to buy more when you’re not forced to think about how much something costs and if you actually need it while waiting in line.

It makes sense why Amazon would want to leverage it for potentially even larger sales. The company’s palm-scanning Amazon One tech works under a similar logic, but exclusively focuses on identification and payment. If showing your ID or paying is easier, you might be more willing to do it more often, even when you don’t have your wallet on you.

Amazon started testing Just Walk Out in full-sized grocery stores in February 2020, and according to The Information, ultimately deployed it in 40 Amazon Fresh grocery stores and two Whole Foods, before deciding to remove it from all of its U.S. stores. The alternative Amazon is now focusing on is Dash Carts, shopping carts with built-in scales, barcode scanners, and touchscreens that let you create a live receipt while you shop. Dash Carts is an option that seems less invasive considering the cameras are pointed at the contents of your shopping cart, rather than following your physical body as you move inside the store.

Why Just Walk Out Failed

Amazon’s Fresh stores look more like normal grocery stores than ever.

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The issue with Amazon’s approach to grocery shopping, and really all tech industry efforts to “improve” the retail shopping experience, is that companies can’t help but make things more complicated. One of the biggest reasons Amazon is backing away from completely cashier-less stores is that it never quite got it working correctly. The artificial intelligence and computer vision skills used to make Just Walk Out happen have to be trained to work properly. According to a 2023 report from The Information, Amazon employed over 1,000 people in India to support the feature by “manually reviewing transactions and labeling images from videos to train Just Walk Out’s machine learning model.”

Those manual reviews were a problem for Amazon, because they showed Just Walk Out wasn’t nearly as simple to implement, let alone bring to other stores, as it seemed. Efforts to lower the number of manual reviews required were largely unsuccessful and halfway through 2022, Just Walk Out “required about 700 human reviews per 1,000 sales, far above an internal target of reducing the number of reviews to between 20 and 50 per 1,000 sales,” the report claims. That’s a lot of fuss for something that a dozen cashiers have solved for over a century.

Think about grocery delivery services like Amazon Fresh and Instacart long enough and you can find similar complications. While ordering groceries makes food and grocery shopping more accessible for anyone who can’t physically leave their home, it does fundamentally change the process. You go from being someone considering products with your own judgment and on your own time, to, in the case of Instacart in particular, the manager of someone else doing that. New frustrations are introduced when you, say, get a product that isn’t up to your quality standards, or a substitution that you didn’t ask for. Then there’s the logistics of delivery itself: getting someone in your building if you live in a big city or finding your groceries delivered to an inconvenient place or the wrong address or unit. Annoyances can pile up quickly, and that’s without even considering how the people doing the shopping on your behalf feel.

Tech Doesn’t Need to Reinvent Everything

Amazon’s dalliances with retail are all characterized by big, interesting-on-paper ideas that don’t fully make sense in the real world. Organizing a store around the number of four-star reviews products received on Amazon? Probably more of an art project than a useful retail concept. A clothing store with changing rooms that can automatically shuttle you new things to try on? Closer to being useful, but still kind of impractical. Book stores organized around weird trends you spotted on your online store? Interesting, but not that different from Barnes & Noble.

All of Amazon’s retail experiments have been shut down, save the grocery stores — and even those have started to look and function more like traditional grocery stores. If you look at the redesigned Amazon Fresh locations the company has started rolling out and didn’t know Dash Carts were an option, they look like basically any other grocery chain down the block. This isn’t a bad thing. If anything, it's a reflection that the in-person shopping habits of normal people are pretty set in stone.

Amazon’s dalliances with retail are all characterized by big, interesting-on-paper ideas that don’t fully make sense in the real world.

If you want to be charitable, Amazon is finding a much better balance between its high-tech innovations and normal grocery store logistics. If you don’t want to extend that grace, it seems like the most surveillance-oriented version of the company’s retail experiment is fading away, and hopefully for good. It’s nice when technology can make an existing experience better or more convenient, but in the case of buying groceries, the old-fashioned didn’t need reinventing.

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