Bright green paint in the parking garage highlights the elevator to the Amazon Go Grocery store in Seattle

Amazon Go Grocery is the perfect answer to the Social Distancing question

Grocery stores are not my favorite places.

In the best of times shopping carts are covered with germs, whether or not you can see them. Annoying as it is to find all of the carts are wet (which is common here in the Pacific Northwest) the silver lining is that you know the rain water has given them a rinse.

I generally think of the belt at the cash register being the biggest health risk. One grocery store chain said they are now cleaning the belts at least every 30 minutes. That is less frequent than I’d like to see during “normal” times. I tend to stack things on the belt to reduce the number of items that actually touch that belt.

Now with social distancing the checkout line is an even bigger concern. Standing in a line of strangers, and setting my groceries on checkout belts that I’ve never trusted to be squeaky clean, I can’t help but wish there was an Amazon Go store in my neighborhood. No checkout line and no checkout belt means nobody and nothing touches your groceries except you and the employees that stock the shelves.

That belt seems to me to be the “weakest link” for food safety at grocery stores, with one person’s raw meat followed by someone else’s raw fruit.

Like an omen, an Amazon semi pulled ahead of me

Amazon trucks trek up and down I-5 all day, every day, at least in the greater Seattle area. Since Amazon recently announced they’ll be offering their technology to other companies it was time to check this out for myself.

Amazon will be offering their Amazon Go technology to other companies the same as their Amazon Web Services (AWS).

During this public health crisis / epidemic / pandemic the biggest challenge is probably the humans in the checkout line with you. With so many activities and events cancelled in the greater Seattle area “out of an abundance of caution” this seemed like a doubly good time to finally venture out to an Amazon Go store. In fact, I visited the newest and biggest one: The first Amazon Go Grocery. You really do Just Walk Out without stopping to pay.

All you need is an Amazon account, the free Amazon Go app, and a recent-generation iPhone or Android phone. Start the app and hold your phone over the window in the turnstile so it can see the code from the app. I was happy to see that I didn’t actually have to touch the phone to the turnstile, which could have been a touch-point for germs. Then you can put the phone back in your pocket or wherever. Overhead sensors track you as you walk through the store.

Ghost Town or Gold Rush?

Dozens of sensors and bundles of wires hanging from the ceiling of the Amazon Go Grocery store in Seattle
Several types of sensors track what you pick up as you shop

Seattle’s new Amazon Go Grocery has free validated parking in a garage under the store. An elevator goes right up to the store’s front door, so you and your groceries can avoid the weather. You can even take a loaded grocery cart back down with you in the elevator.

I wondered whether the store would be empty due to an “abundance of caution” or full due to a mad rush for supplies. Roughly a dozen folks were there with me. That included a few people stocking the shelves and one to check ID if you want to buy an adult beverage.

There didn’t appear to be any non-food items like the toilet paper and hand sanitizer that are so popular with hoarders these days. Bottled water was by the single bottle, not the case. Panic buyers will be happier at “normal” mass market stores.

I did see sensors everywhere. Many were suspended from the ceiling. Some products sat on pressure sensors that you likely wouldn’t notice if you weren’t looking for them.

Amazon Go Grocery was clean and the produce was beautiful

Bins of colorful bell peppers and other produce at the Amazon Go Grocery store in Seattle
Colorful produce that you can place into a bag or whatever container you would like

There is no bulk foods section because the system has no way to measure weight, only quantity. Produce is by the piece rather than by the pound. It reminded me of Trader Joe’s. There are no produce scales, but that could be another plus for cleanliness.

No Checkout line? Really?

The best customer service is there when you need it, and disappears when you don’t. Amazon Go stores have mastered that: You never need to interact with an employee unless you want to. I did ask a couple questions and the employee offered some tips. Here they are along with some other observations:

Can I place an item back on the shelf?

Yes, but you need to put it back where you picked it up. If you put something back, make sure you return it to the same place where you originally picked it up. Leaving food in random places around a grocery store is always bad form, but in an Amazon Go store the system won’t recognize what you did. You’ll still be charged for it

Can I help another shopper who is having trouble reaching something?

Not by yourself. If another customer needs help reaching something, find an Amazon Go employee to help them. Otherwise if you take something off the shelf for them you will be charged for it

Is there free parking?

Yes there is free validated parking at the Amazon Go Grocery at 610 East Pike Street in Seattle (for up to an hour). Check first at other locations.

Do I need to use a grocery cart?

No. At Amazon Go you can use a cart, one of the reusable bags they currently provide at no charge, your own bag, or even stick stuff in your pocket. I was surprised to see someone putting groceries into his backpack right in the store, which of course you shouldn’t do in a “normal” store.

Can I really Just Walk Out with my groceries?

Yes! It’s a strange experience, but as you walk toward the exit the system recognizes you’re finished, opens the turnstile, and charges your purchase to the payment method in the Amazon Go app.

What about a receipt?

A detailed receipt showed-up in the Amazon Go app about an hour after I left the store. Unlike your average receipt, the app listed each item clearly and with a picture. Not only was it attractive and easy to read, but of course there was none of the nasty BPA or BPS chemical residue we are exposed-to in physical cash register receipts.

Are the Amazon Go receipts accurate?

Mine was accurate, but there’s also a way to report a problem if you were charged for something you didn’t actually leave with.

The fact that the receipt took an hour to process suggests there may still be some human intervention involved. I thought the system might be thrown-off when I picked-up several oranges, settled on two, and returned later to the produce section to pick a third.

Some of the food is ready-to-eat and they also have a coffee station. A little “break room” is available on your way out if you want to eat or drink something right away. Note: the break area is probably closed now due to social distancing and restaurants / coffee shops being limited to take-out orders.

The Verdict

Amazon Go for the Win – especially in this time of social distancing, Coronavirus and COVID-19.

Have you been to an Amazon Go or similar no-touch store? Please share your experience in the comments below.

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