Jon Springer is executive editor of Winsight Grocery Business, sister publication of CSP Daily News. A version of this story first appeared in WGB.
NEW YORK —The receipt from my first visit to an Amazon Go store arrived on my phone before I’d even exited the Manhattan mall where the store resides. It got all three items I just walked out with right, and it didn’t charge me for any of the things I’d picked up and later put down.
However, the most interesting thing to me was that the receipt also included the time of my visit: 14 minutes and 48 seconds, which I’d guess would go down as one of the longest visits a nonemployee could possibly have at the futuristic store. The store at the Brookfield Place complex in downtown, which is next door to Oliver Peoples, an upscale sunglass boutique, opened this month and is Amazon Go's debut location in New York.
Spending nearly 15 minutes in a two-aisle store isn’t easy, even though it was my first visit and I wasn’t necessarily there to buy stuff. If anything, Amazon Go feels smaller than the 1,300 square feet it’s listed at. Beside the two aisles is a counter alongside the turnstile entrance that has things such as napkins, plasticware and microwaves to heat up the food items inside, as well as a hallway that appears to lead to a separate storeroom that’s closed off to shoppers but had orange-shirted Amazon Go employees traveling back and forth to restock items out of plastic bins.
Though much attention has been drawn to the fact that this store has a cash-pay option, I didn’t see any shoppers paying with bills and coins, and it wasn’t clear from the visit where such a transaction would take place.
Though not labeled as such, I’d call Aisle 1 “breakfast and dinner” and Aisle 2 “lunch.” I had arrived near the noon hour on a Thursday to find serious crowding in the latter and relatively light traffic in the former. In a concession to the tight confines, the shelves appear about 8 feet tall and, perhaps to conceal all the technology behind them, they are flat black, as is the ceiling with all those cameras.
Shoppers appeared to be a mix of workers from the offices in the floors above and tourists, many who would ultimately find some shade in the 9/11 memorial park across the street or the Hudson River-facing plaza behind the building to eat what they’d just walked out with.
Less than a week after opening day, many shoppers, like me, were also curiously scoping things out. Two office workers were lightheartedly scheming on how they might game the system by walking out each with a hand on the same bag. I looked and took pictures, but at first, I didn’t want to touch.
Right in front on the first aisle was a selection of meal kits designed to be enjoyed by two people. Noontime shoppers left these $18.99 items alone, but for commuters catching the nearby New Jersey-bound ferry or PATH train home, they could be a "what’s for dinner tonight" option. The store is open until 8 p.m. every night and is open weekdays at 6 a.m.
There’s also a variety of grocery staples, including some fresh meats, milk, packaged goods and coffee that all could serve as convenient take-home options. But Amazon Go is primarily an immediate-consumption destination. Its competitor isn’t really a supermarket but rather delis and fast-food chains such as Panera Bread or Pret a Manger.
Much of the prepared foods, including packaged sandwiches, soups, salads, sushi and meal kits, carried Amazon’s branding. An employee—one of about 10 on hand when I visited, I’d guess—told me the branded prepared food came from a central commissary and was not prepped on-site as it was in the company’s debut location in Seattle. Even that facility does less prep work than it did when it opened, the worker said, as additional units opened in that city.
That everything is packaged and stocked precisely to enable efficiency and the technological magic supporting the checkout-free experience imparts a kind of sterility to the store that even the kitchenlike, white-tiled walls don't really make up for. And the fresh food I bought—a 5-ounce cup of spinach leaves and a half-dozen pepper steak squares with a separate garlic-mayo dip—was a perfectly acceptable lunch but nothing exceptional.
Amazon is to be commended for making this all work. It’s mind-blowing. It hits it out of the park on convenience and is another example of how nearly everything Amazon does changes nearly everything, but I was left thinking that executing the offer in a larger and livelier environment is the next challenge. The Amazon Go store succeeds at being what it wants to be. They’ll measure my next visit in seconds.