Just take it and go
Yeoh Guan Jin 
An employee scans in to shop at the Amazon Go store in Seattle, Washington, US. The store uses no cashiers – Bloomberg

Cashless is old school. Passé. Old technology. It’s so tedious to have to swipe your card or scan your mobile device. We have better things to do than wait in line to perform such mundane tasks. But things are changing. All you need to do now is walk into the supermarket, pick what you want, and walk out. As simple as that.

This has recently been made possible by Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer. This is the very same company that spent the better part of the last two decades trying to make people shop in cyberspace rather than drive to the local supermarket.

That, no doubt, is a great way to shop. It’s so convenient. You can buy anything you want and pay for it without even having to get off your seat. Then all your purchases get delivered to your doorstep.

But lately, the company decided to disrupt its well-established business strategy by investing in the brick-and-mortar platform – the very technology it spent its entire existence trying to bury.

Last August, Amazon completed its acquisition of US supermarket chain Whole Foods and its more than 470 outlets for US$13.7 bil (RM53.38 bil).

That is like going back to the Stone Age.

But that mega retailer has something up its sleeve. Just weeks ago, it launched Amazon Go, its first retail outlet that does away with cashiers. All you need to do is walk in there, take what you want, and walk out. Technology does the rest – taking note of every item you put into your shopping cart, tallying up the cost and debiting your account.


It can’t get any easier

The technology is so clever that it can even tell if you change your mind and return an item from your shopping cart to the shelf.

This concept is being tested at the store located on the ground floor of Amazon’s head office in Seattle. The new store, Amazon Go, is powered by artificial intelligence. All you need to start shopping there is to do a one-time download of an app that takes care of all the nitty-gritty of shopping.

It certainly can’t get any easier than that. Shopping will be such a breeze. For those who hate the weekly ritual of going to the supermarket, this will make it more palatable.

For most households, the weekly grocery shopping – that task that requires a trip to the store – is an unavoidable routine. Grit your teeth and be done with it as soon as you can.

Online shopping was the first major attempt to free unhappy men from this ball and chain. But the practice of placing orders remotely and having your grocery delivered to you is not an entirely new concept.

Back in the day, you could call the local provision shop, read out the list of items you want to purchase and the proprietor would personally deliver all those things – from the baby’s milk to the bag of rice – to you.

You could pay for those items as soon as they are delivered to you. Some would give you a credit line that you would have to make good at the end of each month, usually on “pay day”.

Every item you purchased would be noted in a little notebook. This system may still be practised in many small towns and villages across the country.

But for some people, leaving it to the retailer to pick the item you want, or making a choice from a series of pictures on your computer screen, is not ideal.

At Amazon Go, we have this taken care of. You get to pick exactly what you want – for instance, when buying perishables, one bunch of spinach is not quite like the next, or one leg of lamb may not be like the other.

You get to pick the one that’s exactly right for you – freshness, weight, size and other factors considered.

Then you get to take it home without having to queue up at the cash register. That easy. No hassles.


Some kinks to be expected

It is not clear when Amazon will make this strategy a regular feature in all its brick-and-mortar outlets. Since this is only at the experimental stage, there would be some kinks to be taken care of, for sure.

When it does, other retailers will have to adopt the same strategy or come up with similar ideas to stay in the competition.

At the end of the day, if online shopping can’t wipe out physical stores, this would be the next best thing. It should be noted that physical stores still reign supreme, accounting for more than 90% of all retail purchases worldwide. Despite all the hullabaloo, shopping in cyberspace is not virtually a winning strategy yet.

According to eMarketer, a market research outfit based in New York, the global retail market is expected to rise 5.5% this year to US$28.3 tril. The retail e-commerce market, on the other hand, is expected to touch US$2.3 tril in the same period. That is just over 8% of the total value of the retail market.

English entrepreneur Michael Aldrich is credited for inventing online shopping in 1979. The internet made it a global phenomenon. Yet, close to four decades later, online retail business has not managed to win over more than 10% of shoppers.

Mega shopping centres will continue to prevail, complete with the parking woes and long queues. Perhaps harried husbands may find a little bit of relief through Amazon Go.

Yeoh Guan Jin is a veteran journalist. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 271.