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Amazon is selling its no-checkout tech to other stores, and we have questions

Amazon wants other stores to adopt the cashierless automation system it pioneered with Amazon Go, but wouldn’t share details about what it will mean for workers, customers, and retailers.

Amazon is selling its no-checkout tech to other stores, and we have questions
A shopper exits Amazon Go Grocery on February 26, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. [Photo: David Ryder/Stringer/Getty Images]
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After two years of running its own cashierless “Amazon Go” stores, Amazon now wants other retailers to start using the tech.

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The “Just Walk Out” service, which launched this week, lets retailers equip their stores with cameras, weight sensors, and other technology to detect what people grab from the shelves. Shoppers scan a credit card when they enter the store, and the system automatically bills them for each item when they exit, with an optional kiosk allowing them to enter an email address for receipts. It’s unclear what size of stores Amazon is targeting, but the company says it’s ideal for places where customers are in a rush and have long lines. The company told Reuters that it has “several” unnamed retail customers on board already.

If Just Walk Out takes off, it could upend the entire brick-and-mortar retail system even without shifting ever-greater amounts of shopping online. Yet in announcing the new program, Amazon has chosen not to discuss many fundamental issues, such as how it’ll affect jobs and what it will do with all the data it collects. The company declined to answer most questions for this story, instead referring to a brief question-and-answer section on its website.

Will Just Walk Out stores accept cash?

Although Amazon says it can retrofit existing stores with its tech, the company isn’t saying whether those stores could (or should) continue to accept cash.

The cities of Philadelphia and San Francisco both banned cashless stores last year, and a growing number of cities are now considering similar legislation, arguing that such systems discriminate against low-income shoppers and can compromise privacy.

Amazon itself started accepting cash at its Amazon Go store in Lower Manhattan last year, perhaps to head off a potential ban on cashless stores within the city. Shoppers who want to pay with cash have to check in with a Go employee when they enter and have a cashier scan their items on the way out. If more cities cracked down on cashless shopping, it’s unclear whether Just Walk Out stores would be able to implement a similar system or otherwise recoup their investment.

How many jobs are at stake?

Amazon’s website sidesteps the idea that cashierless systems could eliminate jobs, arguing that employees will shift to “more valuable activities” such as greeting shoppers, stocking shelves, answering questions, and checking IDs for alcohol.

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Union organizers aren’t buying it, though. Marc Perrone, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said in a statement that Amazon’s Just Walk Out tech is “part of a ruthless strategy to eliminate as many good jobs as possible.”

He called on regulators and lawmakers to take action. “This so-called cashierless technology is nothing but a Trojan horse that will let Amazon control and monopolize competing retailers and give Jeff Bezos direct access to their customer data,” Perrone said.

In response, Amazon pointed to the 500,000 jobs it has created in the United States as evidence that it’s not a job destroyer. The company did not address specific concerns about how cashierless shopping might affect jobs at stores that implement Just Walk Out, and it’s certainly not guaranteeing that retailers won’t shrink their staffs.

What is Amazon doing with customers’ data?

Amazon’s website says it will “only collect the data needed to provide shoppers with an accurate receipt,” adding that what it gathers is “similar to typical security camera footage.”

This vague statement leaves a lot of room for interpretation. For how long does Amazon retain this footage? Does that footage get associated with individual users through face recognition? Will it be used to further train Amazon’s algorithms? Will any of this be made clear to users when they swipe their credit card to enter a store? Since email receipts are tied to a user’s credit card for all future purchases, will this data be associated with an Amazon account? And will there be any ways to opt out, similar to how users can stop people from reviewing their Alexa voice commands?

Amazon isn’t discussing what data it will share with retailers either, only saying that it prohibits the use of Just Walk Out technology data for anything other than supporting retailers that use it. Still, its policies around that data suggest a degree of sensitivity: “We use a multifaceted approach to enforcing this policy, which includes a mix of access controls, internal policies, employee training, and compliance audits,” a spokesperson says.

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Why should retailers trust Amazon?

The main argument for cashierless checkout is that it makes shoppers happier by freeing them from having to wait at the register, thereby encouraging them to buy more. It may also act as an inherent countermeasure against shoplifting (even if exploiting the system remains possible).

Still, retailers will have to weigh those advantages against the potential for Amazon to become a bigger threat based on what it learns from Just Walk Out. In online retail, Amazon has already acknowledged that it uses aggregate data from its third-party sellers to inform its own products, and the FTC is looking into whether Amazon’s cloud services business has punished clients who also work with other providers, Bloomberg has reported.

Amazon says that retailers are its customers, and maintaining their trust is important, but the company is also reportedly planning more of its own cashierless stores even as it licenses its tech to existing ones. The idea that Amazon might eventually use Just Check Out to squeeze other retailers and further consolidate its own powers doesn’t seem too far-fetched.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Amazon pointed to its creation of 50,000 jobs in the United States. The actual number is 500,000.