AMAZON GO: Looking at the Comms Challenges of the Future of Food Shopping
Communicators May Help Determine the Success & Longevity of “Just Walk Out” Tech
By Greg Eppich, SVP, MSL
For years, brick-and-mortar retailers around the country have struggled to compete with the convenience, inventory and prices Amazon has to offer. Ironically, as traditional retailers began to close their doors forever, Amazon opened brick-and-mortar shops of their own, starting with Amazon Books, followed by Amazon Pop-Ups (focusing on the brand’s range of electronic devices) and, most recently a Seattle-only experiment with Amazon Go – the company’s cashier- and register-free version of a small grocery store.
The Amazon Go concept has addressed a few shopper frustrations, such as having to endure long, painfully slow checkout lines. The good news, for urban shoppers in need of a few essentials, is that these in-store struggles could become non-existent with Amazon Go’s unique in-store experience (or intentional lack of an in-store experience).
The first time I visited what could be the future of food shopping, I made my way through the store thinking about some of the unique communications challenges this concept might introduce as it makes its way into other markets and retail categories, especially those challenges related to orienting consumers to the new experience and, more importantly, engaging them in it.
Communications Challenge #1: Helping Shoppers Get Comfortable with “Just Walk Out” Technology
Like everyone else, I have been conditioned to pay someone for my purchases before leaving a store. The first time I walked out of Amazon Go with two bags filled with things I had just pulled from the store’s shelves, I was anxious and uneasy. Had I missed a critical step in this new and unfamiliar process? Was the young guy in the bright orange Amazon Go T-shirt standing nearby aware of the uncertain look on my face that I had hoped would prompt him to somehow visually confirm he was cool with my departure? Did the hundreds of cameras above me or the weight-sensitive shelves miss one of my selections? I wasn’t entirely relieved until the itemized receipt appeared in my Amazon Go app and I was able to confirm its accuracy. While the overall process was smooth and mostly intuitive, I still needed help from my Go-to experts a couple of times.
Communications Challenge #2: Building Consumer Trust & Privacy
Speaking of technology, Amazon Go’s website claims that “Our checkout-free shopping experience is made possible by the same types of technologies used in self-driving cars: computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning.” I do not know about you, but I am not entirely convinced self-driving cars are all that safe given the stories I have read about fatal accidents involving automated vehicles. In this case, how can I be sure Amazon didn’t charge me for things I didn’t buy or that I hadn’t unwittingly committed my first-ever misdemeanor?
Similarly, one of the concept’s major hurdles will be to address consumer privacy concerns. While the technology does not use facial recognition, the system is still surveilling customers. Coupled with the data Amazon has already collected from its customers, the surveillance may give privacy-conscious shoppers pause.
Balancing this concern, much as we have seen in e-commerce, collecting extensive shopper data could give Amazon the information needed to improve in-store marketing and the overall shopper experience, ultimately leading to an increase in consumer satisfaction and better sales.
Communications Challenge #3: Driving Consumer Relevance & Appeal
Kits and snacks, some of which are prepared by in-house chefs and others by local bakeries. Amazon Go seems like an ideal solution for anyone planning to do light shopping and who is within walking distance from the home or office. This is not the solution for a busy parent looking to do grocery shopping for a household of 2.5 people or more. Not yet anyway.
In addition to selection and location, price is another key consideration for consumers. According to YouGov research, most people would be willing to try Amazon Go’s technology, but that “66% of U.S. adults aren't willing to pay more for groceries, even if it means skipping the checkout line.”
I was surprised to find prices that seemed comparable to those in the major grocery chains I typically shop. One pricing challenge I did discover is that overspending is far too easy. I was unsure how much I had spent until I received the itemized receipt on my app about 15 minutes after I left the store – and it was more than I anticipated.
Shoppers do not need to talk to Amazon Go employees (unless they want to buy alcohol or need assistance as I did). According to research by HRC Retail Advisory, 95% of consumer want to be left alone while shopping. Once customers are familiar and comfortable with the “Just Walk Out” technology, Amazon Go will have successfully addressed a preference shared by nearly all shoppers.
Communications Challenge #4: Addressing Consumer Accessibility
At the moment, Amazon Go is only available to people visiting or living in Seattle, but Amazon plans to open more stores across the country. As they do, Amazon Go shoppers will need to have an Amazon account, a smartphone and the Amazon Go app. Will this attempt to reduce a retailer’s operating costs ultimately hurt groups of people who don’t own or have access to expensive smartphones? What can be done to welcome or accommodate people who might be excluded from simply entering a food store because of their socioeconomic status? Retailers, including Amazon Go, should be mindful of restricting access to affordable, nutritious foods. Turning shoppers away from a convenience or grocery store because they do not meet the retailer’s potentially costly requirements may invite reputation challenges for the retail giant.
Communications Challenge #5: Defending the Potential Impact on Jobs
As is the case with other situations in which technology and automation replace human workers, consumer-facing employees are likely to worry about the impact cashier-less shopping will have on their jobs. This concern is not limited to employees in grocery stores. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 3.5 million cashiers in the U.S. alone, working in a variety of categories, from clothing and footwear to home improvement and electronics, many of which have the potential to adopt Amazon Go’s technology. With that in mind, internal communications specialists will play a critical role in keeping cashiers informed about company developments and opportunities to take on other roles.
Meanwhile, it is too soon to tell what role Amazon Go may play in reshaping the food retail landscape. What is clear is that Amazon is not giving up on trying to redefine the shopper experience, from the way retailers approach it to what consumers expect from it... especially within the grocery category.
Will I Amazon Go again? I absolutely will... if I am in the neighborhood... and my phone is charged.
Greg Eppich, based in Seattle, is a Senior Vice President at MSL, has specialized for more than 20 years in consumer lifestyle and food marketing.