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Why smart stores don't check out

Mike Elgan | April 10, 2017
Amazon, Starbucks and Apple want you to walk into their stores, pick up your items, then walk right out. There's just one problem.

Then you shop.

Amazon's "Just Walk-Out Technology" has one job: to figure out what you're taking out of the store.

As you remove items from the shelf, A.I. uses multiple inputs to figure out what you grabbed. Cameras watch you take it. Scales built into the shelves provide data to calculate the weight of what you took. Amazon's patent filing suggests that the system may also refer to past purchases to help identify current ones.

In other words, intelligent software analyzes a video feed to determine that you removed something from the shelf that looked like a cupcake. It considers data from the shelf, which is also a scale, and calculates that you took something that weighs about as much as a cupcake. And it checks your purchase history — it knows you're a cupcake-eating maniac. After all that input, the software decides that you took a cupcake off the shelf and adds it to your list, which is kept up-to-date in real time as you shop.

If you place an item back on the shelf, the item is removed from the list.

It's possible, based on patent applications, that Amazon intends to use both face and body recognition (metrics like height and weight) to continuously identify you when you wander around the store picking up items.

Here's the best part: When you're done shopping, you just walk out of the store. As you leave, sensors at the door detect that you're exiting, and your Amazon account is charged for the items you got.

It's like shoplifting, except you have to pay for everything you took.

The technology is advanced. It may be too advanced.

A Bloomberg report said the Amazon Go system becomes overwhelmed when the store gets crowded, and that it's relying on humans to supervise the A.I. to make sure it correctly identifies the foods it's charging for. (Amazon did not respond to my request for an interview.)

It appears that Amazon's "Just Walk-Out Technology" makes a lot of mistakes, which is probably OK within reason. But it also may crash, bringing the whole system to a halt, which is not OK.

Amazon dominates retail already. Walmart is a global retail giant worth $215 billion (the company's value based on stock price). By comparison, Amazon is worth $430 billion -- twice the value of Walmart.

It seems like Amazon has a sweet deal going with online retail. Why would they want to enter into the brick-and-mortar space?

The truth is that there are many items that consumers won't buy without seeing or trying them in person. Think of couches, for example. You probably don't want to buy a couch unless you can feel how comfortable it is.


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