Amazon’s Robot Bodega

Don’t miss this important piece from The Verge, which gives great context around this promotional video about Amazon Go, the robot bodega:

As The Verge captures, there are no cashiers and no checkout lines: you grab what you want and just go.

At the moment, there are human stockers at the Amazon Go beta in Seattle, but that seems temporary as Amazon historically has used robots wherever it can to reduce costs and add efficiency.

Neither the video nor The Verge engage with whether or not Amazon Go follows Amazon.com’s normal practice of being intensely price competitive.  In other words, are the prices at Amazon Go the same, cheaper or more expensive than the human-powered bodega at the corner? Answer: probably cheaper.

This is important because if I’m right about the prices that skews everything about Amazon Go as an experiment.  Shoppers are highly price sensitive in many (but not all) contexts, particularly with CPG.

If Amazon Go is cheaper than the local bodega or 7/11, then this is bad news for those local shops.

Mom and Pop markets will now have big box Walmart with its supply chain strong arm tactics chomping away at their existence from one side and Amazon Go eating its way into the middle from the other.

More importantly, the human-to-human interactions that characterize most grocery shopping today at the cash register evaporate in the face of this frictionless but also emotionless interaction. (This reminds me of Erica Jong’s zipless fuck from Fear of Flying.)

All things being equal, we tend to go with the cheaper option. However, at issue here is what we count among all the things.

What aspects of the shopping experience are in our consideration sets when we go to the store?

For high consideration items, perhaps we want a skilled salesperson to guide us in concert with the research we do on our phones in the store or on our computers before we leave the house.

But for low consideration items like groceries, it’s easy to discount the identity-formation supporting energy that comes with going to the same store regularly, seeing the same people at the checkout line, chatting with the fellow customers — some of whom are friends — that you happen to meet.

This sort of identity-formation isn’t the kind we seek deliberately, like a college or a job or a neighborhood where the houses are the right size and the schools are good: it’s the kind that happens as a matter of course after we make those bigger choices.

Until things like Amazon Go show up on our mental horizons.

By virtue of its very presence in our cognitive landscape, Amazon Go requires us to make a conscious decision to go to the human powered bodega in order to be part of a community… this is a new decision, one that requires us to spend part of our limited daily allotment of decision-making energy.

When it comes to buying books, I frequently vote with my dollar and spend a little bit more at independent bookstores like Powell’s to keep them in existence, although I’m also a frequent orderer at Amazon.

But when I’m in a hurry to grab lunch or need milk before I collect my kids at school, will I think through how that purchase will keep my local market in business?

I’d like to say yes, but I might be lying.

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2 thoughts on “Amazon’s Robot Bodega”

  1. Fascinating. In a “grab-and-go” environment, human help is an obstacle and NOT a benefit. The key factors for this are likely location, product selection, and price. Convenience stores typically charge a small premium for the convenience, and if Amazon can manage to be the most convenient C-store it may actually be able to charge a slightly larger premium. I doubt they would because the real point is about the larger Amazon ecosystem, but… they could.

  2. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve deliberately blown off picking something up for dinner on my way home from work, solely because of the dissonance brought about by one too many of any of the following potluck dishes served up by my local Shop Rite (or whatever):

    1) Cashiers retiring to the stockroom to go smoke a bowl instead of addressing the lines extending into the frozen food aisle.
    2) Idiots in the checkout line, attempting to pay for 12 boxes of chocolate-covered Twinkies with an out-of-state, third-party check.
    3) Impossibly slow senior citizens mobbing the store on Geriatric Day.
    4) Extreme Couponers trying to buy 600 lbs. of dog food for $1.12.
    5) Shopping carts that lock up their wheels electronically once taken into the parking lot.
    6) Etc., etc.

    A supermarket where I don’t have to wait in line and I don’t have to interact with anyone at all? And I don’t have to produce some ridiculous “loyalty card” that generates $0.45 in savings in exchange for forwarding my purchase information over to Catalina? Sign me up.

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