Interview: Tech Expert On His Visit To The New Amazon Go Store
PSFK talks to retail innovation expert Flynn Joffray about his experience at the Amazon Go store on opening day
Tech giant Amazon has launched its new Amazon Go store: a prototype brick and mortar experience in its hometown of Seattle in Washington. The big feature of the store is the “Just Walk Out” system which means that shoppers don’t have to pay! Instead they have to scan their phones when they enter the store, and then the store monitors what the shoppers pick up and charges them when they leave the store.
It’s going to be interesting to see if the concept will inspire a new generation of retail experience. To understand this more, I spoke to Flynn Joffray of the retail innovation agency Oak Labs. His team has been working with retailers like Ralph Lauren and Westfield to imagine the Store of the Future. Here’s what he had to say (and feel free to listen in on this PurpleList Podcast):
Piers Fawkes: You visited the Amazon Go store. What was the first impression that you had? What are the takeaways for retailers?
Flynn: The first impression was really interesting. I didn’t quite know what to expect after seeing a whole lot of press that morning of Amazon seeing stores opening. I went with one of my coworkers. We walked up, and there was a line wrapped around the block.
For a split second, I thought, “Oh, boy, we should just come back another day. This is opening day. There’s no reason to wait.” As we stood in line, a person came around with bags. Even though the line was wrapped around the block, we were into the store within about five minutes! That was definitely unexpected and especially impressive with the amount of people that were going through there. It’s not a terribly big store, either. I think that it probably has an occupancy of maybe a maximum of a hundred people. It’s very small.
The in and out proved the Amazon Go service as very express-driven.
When you got into the store, what was the next impression?
It definitely felt like an aisle in Whole Foods. There wasn’t anything flashy inside, not any explicit signage. It was just things on shelves.
It wasn’t intimidating (which I was expecting). There could have been a lot of intimidation from the marketing perspective, but it was definitely leaning on the side of casual.
It was also a quiet environment. Even as many people as were in the store, I didn’t ever feel pressed to do anything. I was just wandering around. I guess it was a lot less intimidating than I had expected.
In some ways, as you talk, I’m not surprised. When you go to the Northwest and you go to the stores and retail experiences that have developed there, there is a little bit more of a laid-back feel to those places, I think.
You could have definitely been walking by, never have heard of anything, and just walked in, even though there was a line. It didn’t feel like any kind of marketing event of any sort. They opened up, and there you were.
It was a chill experience, is the best way I can describe it.
As a technologist, how did the whole ‘tap, log in, and buy’ system work for you?
As a technologist visiting on their opening day, I took the opposite route of the typical customer flow. I had signed up previously, and downloaded their app on the Google Play store. I have NFC on my phone, and I expected that, but I didn’t expect a QR code. Which is good, because it’s backwards compatible with everything. That’s the first thing you see when you open up the application. When I walked through the turnstiles, it was almost like entering security of a building.
Nobody said anything, except for a greeter at the entrance. They almost expected you to know what to do, but there’s not anything more than take stuff off the shelves and leave (they walked it through pretty well inside of the onboarding of the application).
Like I said, I had decided to test the system . After I got the application downloaded, and I was heading into the store, I had my QR code open. I immediately turned my phone to airplane mode, walked through the turnstiles and scanned it. Then I immediately uninstalled the application.
I wanted to see where the boundaries of what would happen after I left, and basically just trying to take the worst route possible. Maybe my phone died, or something equally as not off the beaten path, rather. I wasn’t trying to be explicitly devious, but I guess I was.
In some ways, you entered incognito mode, yeah?
I was attempting to.
Although it’s not immediately apparent, after getting into the store, you can see an amazing amount of equipment on the ceiling: Edge to edge, completely covered, plenty of cameras. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that much equipment inside of a retail space like that before.
People have been talking about this whole pick up and go experience. As somebody who designs retail experiences and shopper flow, how did you see that working? Was it an intuitive process, or did you see it as something that customers and shoppers would have to learn to adopt?
They did a good job in the onboarding as the prerequisite to install this application. You have all the context you need when you’re walking in there: There’s not any kind of a steep learning curve. It just tells you, go scan your thing. Go with your family. If you want, pick things off the shelf. Then when you’re done, go ahead and leave. They’ve delivered on the experience, almost exactly how the app suggests.
When you’re in the store, what are you filling?
They give you a small shopping bag. I’m assuming you could bring your own. They have a little of everything. It’s like if you were to take a Whole Foods, and reduce it down to an eighth of the size. It was about the same type of selection of goods.
Why this is a big deal for Amazon?
Coming from the retail innovation perspective, I always try to hammer home the idea of tangibility. Tangibility’s extremely important, because it removes you from the technology that is normally interfering with your sensory experience when you’re in a tangible place. Amazon did everything they could to make technology go away—visually, physically, everything.
You don’t want to hold your phone open, because you have no reason to in the store. That leverages a lot of the physical store environment way better than you could ever get inside of an application of any sort.
I bought four things. Two of them, I didn’t even want. It wasn’t on purpose. I was looking around the store, I saw something on the shelf, and said, “Oh, that’s an interesting looking chocolate bar. I would, I guess, like something chocolate.”
I didn’t really want chocolate. If you see a shopping list on your phone, you’re immediately skeptical. You’re looking at the prices. The prices are all on a list. You’re doing the online shopping experience.
They went straight to, in my mind, the perfect blending of technology and physical experiences, because they removed all of the technology that they possibly could from that experience, and brought you back to something where technology’s actually helping you.
I was very impressed, honestly.
From what you said, it seems like that lack of friction in the whole transaction encouraged you to buy an extra chocolate bar.
Yeah, and being removed from your phone, especially. You’re not looking at a list. You’re dealing with tangible things. Therefore, your decision making is just like when you go shopping. Now, you don’t even have to think about checking out.
It’s just grab what you feel like you want and playing on the impulse of the tangibility of the store. I think it’s actually pretty brilliant.
What are you going to take from this? You already talked about this idea of the phoneless mobile store, or something. As you think about the innovation you’re building, the clients you’re consulting, what are your takeaways?
I think that the takeaway is that digitizing a physical experience doesn’t always mean putting more technology, and especially explicit technology. This really, really is purely implicit technology. You use your phone, and then you put it away. Then you’re in the physical environment.
You’re not distracted until you get back out of that environment. Telling other retailers that the idea of being tangible, putting customers in a tangible place, and leveraging that, is something that now, we have a good example from a very large company seeking that out.
I think that they will be paving the way for a lot more physical in-store experiences. It’s helping our narrative for what we’re doing immensely.
Here’s my final question. Pick one: (A) this is the first store of 600,
(B) this is a trial before it gets implemented through Whole Foods, or (C) this is a test before Amazon creates a platform which can be distributed across retailers of all sorts.
I would say almost a hundred percent C. It’s them creating a platform for other retailers to leverage their technology. The same way that they allow third-party sellers onto their Amazon marketplace, this is them doing that in the physical space.
That said, I don’t know, really, what their whole goal is… I think maybe just testing out the waters to see where it carries itself.
That wouldn’t be unusual for Amazon to test and test.
So let’s see what happens next. Will this be the first of many Amazon Go stores, will the technology infiltrate their Whole Foods acquisition or will we see some sort of platform play? Keep reading PSFK and let’s find out together.