amazon go

Amazon's technology heralds a food industry revolution

By Anna Campbell

I'm on my way to Edinburgh, having a few stops on the way. One of the stops was Seattle, for a most interesting project I am working on which I hope to share with you one day.

While there, I stayed in the South Lake Union district, which is home to the world's second-largest company by market value, Amazon - who have recently overtaken Alphabet (Google) and Microsoft in value, only sitting behind Apple.

The South Lake Union District was apparently a place to avoid a decade ago, but is now trendy and fast-moving, and Amazon, being the largest employer in Seattle with 50,000 employees, has played a big part in that.

Amazon has invested nearly $US4 billion in their headquarters since 2010, with the main feature being ''The Spheres'', their urban rainforest, which is made of three glass domes housing some 40,000 plants of 400 species.

Visitors are able to go into the bottom of one of these spheres, free of charge. I have to put that experience down as bizarre rather than inspiring. Perhaps I am spoiled by having the humble Ross Creek on my doorstep in Dunedin.

I was underwhelmed by the bizarre rainforest concept, but as a foodie, I was almost overwhelmed when visiting the ''Amazon Go'' store - the world's first automated food retail outlet.

The store was opened to the public in January this year and is not much bigger than a corner dairy at 167sqm. As I walked in the door, I had to scan my QR code on my Amazon Go app, which I had already downloaded on to my phone, giving the store my Amazon account details and of course, access to my Visa.

From there, I could go and take any item of food and simply walk out the door, no further scanning or cashiers required. The store is set up for quick meal and snack convenience shoppers, so I wandered around, taking photos of the fancy meal kits and examining the indulgence section in great detail.

My own (very restrained) purchases consisted of a punnet of enormous strawberries and a yoghurt, which I popped into my carry bag.

As I wandered out the innocuous exit, it was hard not to glance around for fear of setting off the alarms for theft. But no, some 20 minutes later, my Amazon Go receipt was emailed to me, showing I had spent $US5.74 on my two items.

So how does it all work? I thought that as I left the store, a scanner somewhere was scanning the items in my bag which must have had some scannable material embedded in them, but apparently not.

Amazon have not released much about the technology used in their store, other than this: ''Our checkout-free shopping experience is made possible by the same types of technologies used in self-driving cars: computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning.

Our Just Walk Out Technology automatically detects when products are taken from or returned to the shelves and keeps track of them in a virtual cart.''

So, there you go. Apparently there are hundreds of cameras throughout the shop, which follow your every move, noting when you take things off shelves and when you put things back, somehow getting it right when you leave.

The data and technology which sits behind this new concept store is pretty mind-blowing. It's no wonder that Amazon's entry into the food world, signalled when they bought US grocery chain Whole Foods last year, has sent shivers throughout the international supermarket industry.

Mike Coupe, the CEO of UK giant supermarket Sainsbury, cites Amazon as their biggest concern, driving them to merge with ASDA (owned by Walmart) and buy online retailer Argos to try to compete.

For us, as consumers and food producers, it also raises many questions. How quickly and widely will this technology spread? Data is the new gold and Amazon will be sitting on a pile of information about all their consumers and their food-buying habits; the scale of this is unprecedented in the food industry.

What will it mean for how products are developed and how we are targeted as consumers? Finally, as producers, how will we differentiate our products in this type of market, and how do we tap into the type of information Amazon will have as to what consumers really want and will really pay for?

Clearly, one 167sqm store is just the beginning of significant technological change in the way we buy food. There is still a bit to get right though; the enormous strawberries were tasteless!