This has been an exciting week in Primrose Hill! Just down the road, in Chalk Farm, a new Amazon Fresh store has opened its doors, giving customers – and those of us at MBS visiting our offices – the chance to experience the groundbreaking ‘Just Walk Out’ shopping.
Chalk Farm is Amazon’s fifth site in the UK – and it really does feel like something out of a science-fiction film. Customers gain access to the convenience store via a QR code generated on their Amazon app, do their shopping, leave the shop without any form of checkout, and are automatically charged to their Amazon account. Of course, this bizarrely simple approach is powered by big-brother style, best-in-class technology: each shelf is weight-sensitive and designed to recognise when a customer has picked up an item, and hundreds of cameras with infrared technology line every inch of the ceiling, tracking customers’ progress through the store.
“This bizarrely simple approach is powered by big-brother style, best-in-class technology: each shelf is weight-sensitive and designed to recognise when a customer has picked up an item, and hundreds of cameras with infrared technology line every inch of the ceiling, tracking customers’ progress through the store.”
When I paid the store a visit on Thursday, the street outside the shop was buzzing. Promotional markers on the pavement had led me to the store and, despite the rain, shop assistants, customers, and members of the public were milling around excitedly, with many shoppers there purely to ‘experience’ the new retail concept.
The inside of the store in many ways resembles your average modern convenience store – but with one key difference: no tills. The shop sells around 80% fresh produce, with only one or two aisles dedicated to ambient or packaged goods. Interestingly, almost every food product – from broccoli to ready-to-eat sandwiches – is Amazon branded. Third-party brands such as Meatless Farm do have a presence, but mostly in the plant-based, snacks and alcohol categories. There is also an appealing looking bakery section, a small hot food to-go offering and a hot drinks kiosk where, as a Prime member, my coffee was free as part of a Prime Day promotion. By the exit, in one of the few nods to the parent website in store, there is an ‘Amazon Hub’ where customers can pick up and return deliveries ordered from the ecommerce site.
Significant consideration has been given to space planning and merchandising within the store – obviously some of the best minds in Amazon’s data science team have thought extremely carefully about the range and space allocation. The store is incredibly well stocked, and shelving space has clearly been meticulously calculated, with dividers between product types and not an inch of display space going to waste. Even the fresh produce is packed tightly in rows: pineapples – presumably grown to spec – were almost completely uniform, stacked neatly side by side in their boxes.
“I wandered round the store at a leisurely pace, but a busy commuter could have nipped in and out to grab their lunch in a matter of seconds.”
Clearly, the store is a mecca of retail innovation. Chatting with some of the Amazon team on the shop floor, they talked me through some of the clever attempts people had made – each time unsuccessfully – to cheat the system. The best one being someone putting up an umbrella to try to hide their face from the army of cameras on the ceiling! The concept makes shoplifting nearly impossible, and offers its service at a speed not found elsewhere. I wandered round the store at a leisurely pace, but a busy commuter could have nipped in and out to grab their lunch in a matter of seconds.
There are definitely downsides of this efficiency-enabling technology. Customers without the Amazon app, an Amazon account, or even a smartphone, are faced with an immediate barrier to entry. While a member of staff is on hand to assist with the creation of an account, most shoppers in these categories would likely just opt to buy their groceries elsewhere – and I can’t imagine Amazon maintaining these levels of staffing as the store becomes more established in the coming months.
As a consumer, I did also feel a certain level of unease at the amount of personal information I’d just supplied to Amazon – from what products I’d considered then decided against, to the length of time I’d spent browsing each aisle. As the retail concept develops, it will be interesting to see how Amazon leverages the data it collects. Will they start to measure my facial expressions as I look at different products? While pricing is static at the moment, I wouldn’t be surprised if variable pricing structures are introduced in the months and years ahead, flexing to supply and demand for certain product types at different times of the day, or even price elasticity for individual customers.
On reflection, however, the biggest ingredient missing from this Amazon Fresh store was any sense of warmth or personality. Chalk Farm and Camden is a real community and most of the stores have local employees who get to know their customers over the years. But here, there is no local branding, and not so much as a cork board promoting nearby events. The area is also diverse, but – unlike the Morrisons across the road – there is no food section catering for local ethnic or religious groups. The store has made no effort to integrate into the community, and walking out without sharing a smile or making small talk with a member of staff at the checkout felt clinical and soulless.
All in all, I left Amazon Fresh with mixed feelings. The store is certainly an example of truly groundbreaking retail – streamlined for optimum efficiency, and fully utilising the most advanced technology we have at our disposal as a sector.
However, in an effort to provide a technology-led experience, Amazon has created something purely transactional and completely void of character or warmth.
This is, I’m sure, to some extent intentional – but my shopping experience felt out of place in our post-Covid world, in which now more than ever we crave human interaction and face-to-face conversations. Amazon’s new store concept feels at odds with most other businesses in the sector, which are striving to offer memorable retail experiences that are enjoyable as well as functional… and provide a reason not to shop on amazon.com.
Certainly, Amazon Fresh is only the beginning of Amazon’s move into physical spaces – in fact, Amazon Salon, the tech giant’s new foray into hair and beauty, opened its first site just a few weeks ago in Spitalfields. While my physical Amazon Fresh shopping experience was definitely enlightening, I can’t see myself becoming a regular. Would you welcome an Amazon Fresh to your local high street?