Changing jobs a few months ago gave me the opportunity to explore a whole new lunch time scene. I moved from the LowerPacHeights/Japantown neighborhood to San Francisco’s downtown Financial District. The lunch time topography is radically different between the two neighborhoods. Downtown it’s all about Density. There’s more, more, more of everything, including the huge numbers of (mostly young) people with whom I am competing for food and service. The lunch hour feels different on a cultural level too. You have to go out of your way to find a sit-down place. They’re around, but they are far outnumbered by buffets and quick-serve (don’t say fast food!) spots. The main objective of the many competing eateries is to churn as many people through as possible — quickly and satisfactorily — which means throngs of the employed exiting the front doors with tidy To-Go lunch containers that will be brought to a second location (desk!) to be eaten.
It’s a little astonishing to see the lines of people spilling out of popular places like Super Duper, Sushirrito, and Mendocino Farms, where I have tried several times, at varying hours, for my chance to be in a reasonably short queue without success. And there are faddish pop-up trucks that also reel them in.
This is a picture I took of people waiting their turn at a taco truck last week. These must be some pretty earth-shatteringly good tacos. I shall never know, because I really don’t have the patience to spend 15-20 minutes of my lunch hour standing in line at a place that doesn’t particularly have room for me to sit down. I don’t like standing in lines, period.
Amazon, the masters of convenience, have a new neural net of stores downtown called amazon go, and I am unequivocally on board. Here’s the premise: you enter the store and are plugged in through your amazon go app that you’ve set up through your digital familiar – the smart phone. You can do this with little to no effort if you also already have an Amazon Prime account or other Amazon-based subscriptions with your payment information stored, which I do.
Once in the store, you can cruise the couple of aisles and pluck what you want from the shelves and walk out. Note, the magic formula is that there are no lines at all. Inside the entrance is a greeter in an orange t-shirt and a turnstile that whooshes its panel doors open in obeisance to our cyber commerce connection. (You place your the ‘key’ scan symbol from the amazon go app in the scan window, as you might at an airport with your boarding pass to make the doors open for you.) The receipt for items purchased shows up later as an email, or can be found in greater detail on the app.
The app collects the receipts from your purchases and even clocks your time in the store. It’s not unlike a retail fitbit. The time I breezed in there to pickup a Chobani yogurt on my way into the office because I realized forgot to bring one from home was a personal best at 34 seconds.
How are they able to do give us this slightly-freaky no strings attached kind of shopping experience? All the items you pick up are tracked by sensor, but less punitively than in a fancy hotel room mini-bar where you can’t change your mind and put something back after you’ve touched it without being charged. On a typical trip, I might grab a sparkling water, a lunch salad like a Cobb or Nicoise, or a tube of moisturizer. Because Amazon has – for good or for ill – been studying all our shopping moves for the last couple of decades, the stuff on the shelves is mostly exactly what we want or need. Truly a convenience store that wants to be the upscale 7-Eleven of the new millennium.
As a convenience store, I don’t believe amazon go is squeezing out one-off corner market stores. They seem to be filling a void for people who need to pick up key grocery items on the way home as well as a quick lunch. Downtown, for all its myriad eateries of all stripes and types, is something of a grocery desert. I don’t have the time to walk to the Ferry Building or the Safeway over by Golden Gateway during lunch hour and still eat. Each one is about a mile away. Amazon’s closest cousins for picking up a few tide-over items are CVS and Walgreen’s, each of which have an abundance of snacks and processed foods. Amazon has the power of the Whole Foods brand contributing items that are a little more easy to integrate into your kitchen if you are no longer serving your family DintyMoore stew, canned fruit, and Jiffy-Pop popcorn. At amazon go you can get a steak, a package of chicken parts and assorted meal kits like the kind that Blue Apron delivers.
There is a problem with the premises’ premise, however. Only computer-literate people with smart phones may enter. Seniors who are techno-phobic would probably opt out of a place like this, even those that have smart phones and a grandchild guide would probably opt out without feeling aggrieved. Poorer and financially disenfranchised shoppers, though, probably feel targeted by the exclusion. As you may have already read, the SF Board of Supervisors stepped in to object to the amazon go model in May, voting unanimously to ban cashless stores. The exclusionary shopping experience amazon go offers – being open only to those with smart phones tied to credit card accounts – will have to make way for options to pay cash. The New York City store, the most recent to open, is the first to have rolled out accepting cash through use of a ‘cash counter’ clerk. San Francisco’s stores will be rolling that out ‘soon,’ I was told.
So, if this compromise works I will be glad because there are a lot of people who can enjoy the benefits of a store that uses technology to take the sting out of shopping. In too many places the shopping experience is far from pleasant or easy. Have you tried to buy a toothbrush at a Walgreens lately? I don’t know about other towns, but in my city if you want to select a toothbrush they are all locked up and you have to get a clerk to help you take one. Same for bottles of liquor at Safeway.
It’s not hard to deduce why. Shoplifting of these items is so rampant. A CVS clerk told me that they lose about 40% of the Neutrogena products they put on the shelves so they had to put it under lock and key. They’ve freed up their clerks to unlock things for customers by setting up self-checkout stations, which I hate. Buying something at those stations always feels stressful to me — not the same at all as the Brave New World experience of walking into the amazon go — a place where you can comfortably walk in with a water bottle in hand that you purchased somewhere else, because they know it’s not one of theirs — and walking back through the turnstile with a couple items under your arm. From this worker-bee’s standpoint, this retail experiment is a success, and I hope it inspires other retailers to design a shopping experience that is more pleasant for the customer, including flexible paying options and better prepared, healthy food for the grabbing.