The Magic of Amazon Fresh

Amazon Fresh is Amazon’s UK grocery store. There are currently 3 open in West London, and in the interest of research (& buying some snacks) I visited the store in White City on Saturday, and like a kid after seeing a magic show, I’m still trying to work out how they did it…

The store uses the ‘Go Store’ technology from the US, the Amazon shops where there are no cashiers or checkouts. Shoppers need to check in with an app on their smartphones, and the technology monitors them as they move around the store and note what they remove, charging their Amazon account after they have left.

I visited one of the American ones in New York in July 2019, and I was keen to see how the new ones compared.

The first thing to say is that while the principle is the same, the UK store is much bigger, and has a door to the street, unlike the American ones which are generally within shopping malls. The store in White City is part of a new complex of apartments, and is essentially the food store at the bottom of a residential building.

Ironically for a ‘no cashier’ store, there were at least 10 Amazon staff on view, helping shoppers to check in, filling shelves and generally helping shoppers understand the concept.

When I visited the store in the US I had to download a separate app, whereas this time the QR code I needed to enter was within the main Amazon app. In the US the app I used had a regularly refreshing QR code; it kept changing every 20 seconds or so, a bit like an RSI tag. This felt like a security measure (it would be impossible to get in with a screen grab of a friend’s code for example), and so it seems that the technology has improved (or fraud is less than feared) over the past two years.

The store was bigger than I expected, and stocked with a mix of well known brands, Amazon’s own label foods, and fresh goods like bread and cookies. At least 90% of the products seemed to be at recommended retail prices — I am a bit of a geek on in-store prices having been shopping most days during lockdown — with fewer special offers than in my local Sainsbury’s.

There is also a place where you can collect Amazon packages or drop off returns — a nice bit of synergy.

What if you have kids? I was shopping alone, but I asked the question and was told that kids were allowed, but that the main shopper would need to scan each in separately with the main shopper’s bar code.

But — how do they do it?

When I visited the store in New York it was quite easy to see how the technology worked. There were cameras in the ceiling and the products in packages were easily recognisable. Any fresh goods were packaged with large QR codes on them. How (I assume) it worked was that a sensor in your phone told the camera who the shopper was in each location, and then the camera spotted which item was being taken off the shelf and assigned that to the shopper.

The new stores don’t seem to have cameras in the ceiling, and fresh produce like cookies don’t have bar codes.

My best guess is that Amazon is using weight-sensitive shelves to detect that an item is being removed, and assigning that to the shopper (identified as before by the handset). Amazon has made shelves that are weight sensitive for companies to use to automatically order items like stationary when they start to run out, again based on weight changes.

But however they do it, it feels even more ‘magic’ than it did two years ago!