Amazon’s latest experimental Go convenience store is opening today in San Francisco, adding the Bay Area city as the third after Chicago and Seattle in the company’s ongoing offline retail expansion. The store, located at the corners of California and Battery in the city’s financial district, is modeled much like the five existing locations. It largely serves prepared food, snacks, and drinks, with a focus on Amazon’s own line of sandwiches, salads, and meal kits. But the big innovation is its complete removal of the checkout process.
Instead of standing in line and paying a cashier, cameras and sensors track your movements through the store after you’ve scanned your Amazon account at the front. The system, which also uses computer vision and other artificial intelligence-assisted techniques, monitors when you take items off shelves. When you go to leave, you simply walk out, and you’re then charged for what you’ve taken and given a digital receipt through Amazon’s standalone Go app. I took a tour of the 2,300-square-foot location late last week, when its windows were covered and its existence largely a secret until the San Francisco Chronicle revealed the address on Thursday using property records.
The interior is that of a very nice convenience store, with some seating and microwaves up front for warming up frozen pre-made food and eating in if you so choose. As for checkout, everything worked as advertised. I used the Amazon Go app to walk through a set of automated doors near the front, and from there I picked up an Amazon-made chicken bánh mì sandwich and walked right back out without any hassle.
The store’s motto is “Good Food Fast,” and the app even tracks how long you spent during each visit as a kind of brag about the efficiency of the cashier-less model. Dilip Kumar, Amazon’s vice president of technology for Amazon Go, told me that the core focus of the Go model is to save people time. “How crowded [the store] is becomes no longer a function of how long it’s going to take,” Kumar told me. With Go stores, the company wants to eliminate the concept of a morning or lunch rush, as well as the notion that you have to restrict what you buy and where you eat based on how much time you have to wait in line, place an order, and wait for it to be prepared. The store’s hours are 7AM to 9PM local time, and it will be open Monday through Friday.
It’s clear from the layout of the store and its upscale presentation that, at least in San Francisco, Amazon is aggressively targeting delis, cafes, casual lunch spots, and drug stores with its Go model. Stocked at the California Street location is pretty much everything you’d find at a 7-Eleven, with a small and seemingly hand-picked selection of goods you might more readily find at, say, a Walgreens. For instance, you can head to the Go store to purchase a can of Pringles, or maybe some chapstick, and choose from a pretty basic selection of cold medicine. You can also buy bread, milk, and cheese.
The company has stocked the store with more expensive ready-to-cook kits from its Blue Apron-style meal service, which were restricted to online ordering until the launch of the first Go store in late 2016. Amazon has also partnered with local third-party restaurants, including bakery La Boulangerie and South Indian restaurant chain Dosa, to flesh out its inventory with pastries, yogurts, hummus, and other options. It even partnered with a local chocolate maker to make a San Francisco-centric brand of Amazon Go chocolate.
Ultimately, Amazon hopes its cashier-less model proves convenient enough, and its food and product selection appealing enough, to draw people away from the tried-and-true chains we’ve become accustomed to. The company is not necessarily trying to replace the 7-Elevens and Walgreens of the world, at least not yet. And a Go store is a far cry from a fast casual restaurant or a traditional restaurant with counter service. Rather, right now it seems like Go stores are an avenue for Amazon to establish a stronger foothold in offline retail, just like its physical bookstores in Seattle and New York City and its acquired Whole Foods locations give it a strategic footprint in groceries and paper books.
Of course, down the line, Amazon could use its Go model as a way to aggressively expand its brick-and-mortar operation if the stores prove especially successful and capable of handling high volumes of shoppers. Bloomberg reported in September that the company plans to open thousands of locations over the next three years in what would be a remarkable escalation of Amazon’s offline retail rivalry with Walmart, grocery chains, and even the traditional restaurant and fast food industries.
We’re not quite there yet. But Amazon is starting to move faster, and in the process its transforming from an e-commerce giant to a true, do-everything retail operation. The company has already planned its second San Francisco location at a site basically around the corner from its current one, at 98 Post Street. It will be slightly smaller than the first one, and it’s opening this winter, the company says. Meanwhile, in Chicago, Amazon is opening its third Go store at the Illinois Center in 2019. That will bring is total number of stores up to eight, with at least one location planned for New York City some time in the next year.