Curiosity brings out the crowds at opening of Amazon’s first full-size cashierless grocery store

·4 min read
Customers line up to get into a new Amazon Fresh store in Bellevue, Wash. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)
Customers line up to get into a new Amazon Fresh store in Bellevue, Wash. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

BELLEVUE, Wash. — The first full-service Amazon Fresh grocery store to take advantage of the retailer’s “Just Walk Out” cashierless shopping technology could well become a tourist attraction.

That’s what was on the mind of Romy Wada, who made the half-hour drive from Auburn to the store at Bellevue’s Factoria shopping center at 4:30 a.m. today to be the first in line to enter.

“I work for a tour company,” Wada explained as he waited in the morning sunshine. “We are handling Asian people, and sometimes they’re interested in the supermarkets at Amazon. So I just had to come here to check out everything.”

The crowd grew to more than 200 people, queued in the mall’s parking lot and down the sidewalk, by the time the doors opened at 7 a.m.

There wasn’t exactly a mad rush: Amazon staff members checked with customers as they moved up the line, to make sure they were ready for cashierless shopping.

Amazon operates more than a dozen Amazon Fresh grocery stores across the country, but the Bellevue store is the first one to use the shopping surveillance system that was pioneered at the company’s Amazon Go convenience stores.

Video camera systems keep track of what Amazon Go customers put in their baskets (and what they take back out), with the aid of computer vision and artificial intelligence. Customers scan a code on their smartphones, and the bill is automatically charged to their account after they walk through the exit turnstiles.

First customer enters Amazon Fresh store
First customer enters Amazon Fresh store
Amazon Fresh opening
Amazon Fresh opening
Amazon One booth
Amazon One booth
Interior view of Amazon Fresh store
Interior view of Amazon Fresh store
Meat counter
Meat counter
Produce shelves
Produce shelves
Amazon Fresh deli
Amazon Fresh deli
Banana stand
Banana stand
Customer service
Customer service
Customer with full shopping cart
Customer with full shopping cart
Store exterior
Store exterior

Technically speaking, this Amazon Fresh store isn’t completely cashierless, and despite what the sign says, customers don’t exactly “Just Walk Out.” There are a few cashiers on duty, just in case shoppers prefer to pay cash. And because there’s an app-less option, customers have to scan their ID when they enter the store and when they leave.

At the same time, Amazon has streamlined the cashierless payment system: Instead of requiring a specialized Amazon Go app, the company has built an “in-store code” feature into its main shopping app, for use with any of Amazon’s brick-and-mortar stores. You can also use Amazon One, the company’s palm-reading biometric ID app. Or you can just scan your credit card.

Because the video cameras hanging from the store’s ceiling are programmed to watch what you pick up from precisely defined locations, Amazon warns you not to pick up an item for someone else unless you want it on your bill. Also, prices are generally calculated per item, per bag or per box rather than by the pound . (Buying meat or seafood at the counter is the big exception.)

Even though Amazon Fresh is a non-traditional grocery store, the traditional tricks of the grocery trade are still in play — including direct-mail circulars, coupons and specials. The opening-day specials almost blatantly took aim at the traditional attractions offered by Costco, another shopping empire headquartered in the Seattle area. One sign advertised rotisserie chicken for $4.97 (vs. $4.99 at Costco). Another offered pizza at $1.79 a slice (vs. $1.99 at Costco).

Generally speaking, the prices are comparable to what other grocery chains charge. Amazon’s house brands tend to be cheaper, and there are some notable deals for this week’s opening. (For example, a 12-pack of Coke for $2.69.) And to top it all off, you can do an Amazon Fresh curbside pickup, pick up packages at an in-store Amazon Locker, or return Amazon purchases at customer service.

How much business will this new breed of Amazon Fresh store take away from more traditional grocery stores, ranging from QFC and Safeway to Costco and Walmart?

The final verdict may have to wait until the novelty has worn off. Amazon says it will analyze the results from its experiment in Bellevue and “go from there” when it comes to using the technology at other Amazon Fresh or Whole Foods stores.

But for now, the “Just Walk Out” experience should keep the tourists happy — even if the “tourists” are driving in from downtown Seattle, as Amazon quality assurance manager Yuhendar Balasubramaniyan and his father, Narasimman Balasubramaniyan, did this morning.

The family bought a couple of bags of vegetables and fruit, plus a 12-pack of soda, just to see what it was like.

“It’s easy,” Yuhendar said. “Your shopping is done in 10 minutes.”

“Quite wonderful,” his father said.

GeekWire contributing editor Alan Boyle lives in Bellevue and has shopped in the Factoria neighborhood for 30 years.

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