Amazon wants to turn the local grocery store into a total surveillance experience just so you can avoid standing in line. The cashier is becoming a thing of the past at McDonald’s, Wal-Mart and numerous other retailers, but nobody knows how all those unemployed cashiers will earn the money to buy their own groceries.
Some experts feel as more consumers become comfortable with kiosks and related technology, cash is being gradually phased out, inching America and the rest of the world ever closer to the liberal ‘utopia’ of a cashless society.
The biggest fear is what happens when Murphy of “Murphy’s law” fame inevitably pops out of Pandora’s jack-in-the-box.
It’s easy to envision an “open the pod bay doors, Hal” moment as someone tries to get their shopping cart out an automated exit turnstile, simply because they set the peanut butter on the cheese shelf when they changed their mind, instead of returning it to its proper location.
The world might be a simpler place today if George Orwell had kept his radical ideas to himself. By warning of Big Brother’s dangers, he laid out the roadmap that led to a less sinister “Little Sister.” Now it’s global corporate conglomerations doing the watching, instead of the government.
Modern artificially intelligent “conveniences” like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa helpfully monitor a family’s every move. Google’s “assistant” is androgynous, activated by simply saying “Google.” Hopefully it has good protection against waking up from casual conversation.
As the recent Amazon Echo Dot controversy revealed, Alexa doesn’t always know when to keep her mouth closed. She emailed a complete transcript of one subscriber’s private conversation to an employee of a family member. It was a good thing that all they were talking about were new hardwood floors.
Along with the obvious threats, there are insidious dangers lurking in the shadows. The day the doors opened at the Seattle, Washington flagship Amazon Go store of the future, Joy Carter was on hand to demonstrate.
“We’re rejecting the future they’re imposing on us,” she proclaimed from behind a “cat” mask that obscured her identity from cameras. “This grocery store is a fantasy like there’s innovation here but the implications are that the workforce is split into two classes, the people making $100,000 and up and others who have to scrape to survive.”
Amazon Go is a first of its kind, physical Amazon store with no checkout lines at all, not even phone scanning. Only a bare minimum of employees are required. Pull out a smart phone, and there’s an app for it. Once you’re in the system, visit the store, do your shopping by just grazing the shelves and plopping in a bag as you go.
The Wal-Mart type self-scanners aren’t required and you don’t even have to scan items with your phone. Amazon calls it a “Just Walk Out” shopping experience. “This technology can detect when products are taken or returned to the shelves and keeps track of them in your virtual cart,” they boast.
“It’s not just the transaction,” law professor Danielle Citron warns. The privacy expert notes, “powerful companies like Amazon don’t just have what you bought at the grocery store, but they’re also connected with and combined with nearly every aspect of your life.” Where shoppers live, what they watch and what they buy are valuable commodities.
RFID technology, teamed with enormous numbers of sophisticated cameras, weight sensors built into shelves, and artificial intelligence, mean you just grab and go.
“The majority of sensing is from above,” Dilip Kumar an Amazon Go executive confirms. “Cameras figure out which interactions you have with the shelves. Computer vision figures out which items are taken. Machine-learning algorithms also determine which item it is.”
As you walk out the door, your items are tallied within milliseconds, your balance debited and the receipt gets sent to your device. That may be great for those with financial stability but out of work cashiers probably won’t be shopping there.
Nobody mentions what happens if the items in your cart exceed your available balance but shoplifters are charged for anything they stuff in their pockets, at least that’s the theory.
They offer all the things you would normally find at a grocery store including “ready-to-eat” options for every meal “made every day by on-site chefs and favorite local kitchens and bakeries.”
They stock all the grocery staples with locally sourced options too. Of course, there is a wide selection of their “Amazon Meal Kits,” with all you need to whip up a meal in under half an hour. All you need, they invite, is “an Amazon account, a supported smartphone and the free Amazon Go app.”
The application they filed to patent the system notes that to “connect a product with a specific shopper,” the system uses cameras to take photos virtually everywhere.
According to tech analyst Pocket Lint “they would take photos when people enter the store, when they removed items from a shelf, and when they left with items in their hands.”
The patent application mentions “facial recognition” and “user information, which may include images of the user, details about the user like height and weight, user biometrics, a username and password, even user purchase history.”
It isn’t hard to imagine a shopper’s phone buzzing in their pocket as they pick up a frozen pizza, “Gee Dave, you gained five pounds last week, do you really want to buy that? Why not try this Amazon branded better nutrition product instead? By the way, that yogurt you like is on sale.”
Pocket Lint notes, “if it is a camera-tracking system that also uses AI in the form of facial recognition or user biometrics, as well as sensors, such as something in the label of products, we could see the technology stoking some privacy concerns.”
Amazon compares the data they collect to similar to existing grocery store loyalty card programs but Alvaro Bedoya disagrees. According to the executive director of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown University’s law school, “it’s highly likely that Amazon Go collects more information than any retail setting out there now.”
“When you shop with a discount card, you know what information the store’s collecting,” namely what things you just bought, asserts Bedoya.
“Amazon is tracking you throughout the store. Are they really only tracking you when you lift the item off a shelf? Or are they tracking where you move throughout the store, what you’re looking at, what sections you’re dwelling in?”
A second Amazon Go opened, also in Seattle but other major cities are on the drawing board, after the bugs get worked out. The new Seattle location is only open limited hours and has a scaled down selection, not offering a kitchen or liquor section.
Entry level workers are left out in the cold. As Washington Post reports, “if the cashier-free technology expands, the stores could deeply erode the need for America’s second-most common job.” An estimated 3.5 million cashiers are employed in America, according to federal statistics.
Amazon says they still have employees, and they are freed up to “work on different tasks, including helping guide shoppers to the right items.” Some check drivers’ licenses to make sure alcohol purchases are legal, stock the shelves, or put together meal kits.
Professor Ryan Hamilton points out the flip side is that across the entire industry, “a cashier-less store is financially very appealing.” The Emory University Goizueta business school Professor fears “this has the potential to cause as much upheaval to cashier jobs as self-driving cars could to truck drivers and taxi drivers.”
Another indirect consideration is the psychological impact. Some consumer psychologists feel the total format “could also help Amazon redefine one of retail’s core moneymakers, impulse buying.”
Marketing psychology professor Kit Yarrow observes, “the less time we have to think about how much we’re spending, the more removed we are from the process.”
Amazon’s approach is interesting, Yarrow insists, “what Amazon Go does is take away all of the negatives. It doesn’t give you time to consider how much you’ll be spending or how that will impact your budget. It puts all of the emphasis on the pleasure of what we’re consuming in that moment.”
The way the lines get blurred, policy analyst Joseph Jerome asserts, “you now have a full record of everything you’ve purchased but it’s going to exist for all time, and it’s going to be owned by Amazon.”
Wal-Mart is scrambling to catch up and doesn’t have the heavy technology that Amazon invested in. The long time discount retail leader is forced to fall back on “scan and go” phone technology. Shoppers scan the bar codes with their phones as they shop and show the digital receipt to the greeter on their way out the door.
Grocery giant Kroger is also working on it’s own version of a similar phone scan system, planned for deployment in 400 stores.
McDonald’s promise to have self-service kiosks at all U.S. locations by 2020 prompted former CEO of McDonald’s USA, Ed Rensi, to take out an opinion page in Forbes. He argues that what McDonald’s is forced to do with self-service ordering is replace workers with technology for the first time.
Rensi himself started behind the grill flipping burgers. He never would have had a chance to make it to the grade of CEO without the minimum wage entry level opportunity. In the past, McDonald’s has always been on the forefront of embracing technology, but until now, it has served to make the jobs of human workers less tedious and more fulfilling.
Rensi points out that raising minimum wages does a disservice to low wage workers. Instead of a virtually guaranteed low wage entry level stepping stone to higher wages, unskilled workers are priced totally out of the market, with no replacing opportunity, so no income at all.
McDonald’s is also trying to retain workers to circulate among the kiosks to facilitate ordering and assisting. They started bringing the food to the table.
Now that customers have had a chance to use the kiosks, some embrace the convenience while others prefer to wait in line, even if it takes longer. Another factor is that some customers insist on paying with cash.
In the United States, nearly a quarter of all consumers prefer using cash for all of their purchases. Outside the U.S. cash is even more standard. In Mexico, it is used for 90 percent of transactions.
While “as many as 86 percent” of Americans “sometimes use cards to make purchases,” cash isn’t going away entirely any time soon.
At the same time, for some purchases a strong majority are comfortable using plastic. “Contactless” transactions like from smartphones and watches are on the increase but still only represent about 5 percent of overall transactions, Experian reports.
Overall, if totally unskilled employees can be directed into useful positions to preserve a job opportunity, the economic impact can be softened. The crucial consideration is that there has to be something for those with low IQ’s and limited skills. Even if free job training programs are available, only a percentage will be willing and able to take advantage of them.
Privacy will remain the biggest concern, from constant surveillance, weaving into a growing net as you travel from store to store and also from tracking you and your preferences year after year.