Suburban west Londoners were given a glimpse of the future on Thursday morning. And where some found it “magical,” others resorted to swear words as they struggled to adjust to a revolution in grocery shopping.
Amazon opened its very first “contactless” food store outside the US, with customers able to head inside, pick products off the shelf and walk out without queuing at a till.
The first shoppers at the Amazon Fresh store in Ealing – expected to be the first in a wave of high-street stores across Britain from the retail giant – shared their delight and unease at the novelty of the “just walk out” experience.
After scanning a QR code on their way in, cameras and depth-sensor technology identified everything shoppers put in their bag, without any need to scan purchases. Customers were automatically charged later via an Amazon app on their phone.
Not everyone was on board. One elderly gentlemen with a walking stick was told by an Amazon worker at the door he would have to download an app and put in his bank card details.
“Oh f*** that, no, no, no – can’t be bothered” he replied, before marching off in the direction of Sainbury’s.
Others found it a strange but exciting experience. “It was like magic,” said 71-year-old Philippa Dolphin, who said she didn’t have any concerns about signing up to the Amazon system. “I felt like I was stealing things – stealing my bottle of wine.”
She added: “It makes shopping just so quick and easy. It’s scary, just how easy it is. Because it makes you wonder how other businesses will keep up with this.”
Chris Griffin, who works for London’s Museum of Brands, made a special shopping trip to Ealing to try out the “frictionless” experience.
“This is the next stage in the future of retail so I wanted to see it for myself,” said the 63-year-old. “I suppose it could make shopping more impersonal. But the technology was so smooth, so easy to use – one scan and you’re in. I think the supermarkets will have to catch up to this.”
The west London supermarket is similar to the 20 Amazon Go stores the company runs in the US, but will operate under the Fresh brand it uses for its UK online grocery operations.
It’s surprising to see around one-third of the products on the shelves are packaged up under the online behemoth’s own brand – Amazon chips, Amazon pizzas, Amazon curries and Amazon cakes – which have been sourced from British suppliers.
The company has said its “just walk out” technology uses “computer vision, deep learning algorithms, and sensor fusion” – but has insisted facial recognition tools are not part of the way the system tracks shoppers around the store.
Civil liberties campaigners have concerns, however. “[It] offers a dystopian, total-surveillance shopping experience,” Silkie Carlo, from Big Brother Watch, told the BBC.
“Amazon’s intense tracking of shoppers will create larger personal data footprints than any other retailer. Customers deserve to know how and by whom these records and analytics could be used.”
Retail expert Harry Wallop, author of Consumed, doesn’t believe many people will be put off by Amazon’s cameras and thinks its unique, scanner-free, till-free model has the potential to be a “gamechanger” for food shopping.
“It doesn’t involve handing over any more details than any other app you use to buy things, so I think the number of people with privacy concerns will be pretty small,” he said. “Some people might get a bit freaked out by cameras tracking you, but for most people it won’t necessarily feel any different to CCTV.”
The expert pointed that Sainsbury’s had already experimented with an entirely till-less shop in north London in 2019 – but ditched the model because customers didn’t like having to scan each and every one of their items using their phones.
“Shoppers found it too gimmicky, too much like hard work. This could be the game-changer because people don’t have to do any work. I’m still slightly sceptical how much time it saves for people. But we’ll just have to wait and see how convenient people find it.”
Mr Wallop has already tried out some of the Amazon Fresh products sold in the Ealing store – including the company’s “tasty” prawn sandwiches. He thinks some of Britain’s big supermarkets could be spooked.
“Amazon haven’t said who their suppliers are. But the prices for the stuff in their range are very competitive. And the quality is worryingly good, from their rivals’ point of view – it’s something like Waitrose quality.”
Amazon have said its new store in Ealing will be the first of a number of planned openings across London. Matt Birch, who lead Amazon Fresh Stores UK, hopes it will make grocery shopping “as convenient as possible”.
He said: “We recognise that UK customers want to shop in a convenient way, so we really think they will appreciate being able to walk in and walk out with the shopping they need.”
Retail workers’ union Usdaw shared its sense of dismay at the development, however – arguing it could lead to job losses.
Paddy Lillis, the union’s general secretary, said: “During the current crisis retail workers have rightly been applauded as key workers, and now Amazon’s strategy is to cut the number of retail jobs in stores through the launch of shops with no checkouts.”
“Retail workers deserve better,” he added. “We can use new technology for the benefit of shoppers and staff but this is not the way to do it. All too often retailers are dazzled by new technology, chasing solutions to problems that don’t exist.”
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