Will Just Walk Out tech work for Whole Foods?

Discussion
Photo: Amazon
Sep 09, 2021

Two new Whole Foods Market stores scheduled to open next year will be set up with Amazon.com’s Just Walk Out technology to enable customers to shop without having to stop at a physical checkout stand.

The stores — one in Washington, D.C.’s Glover Park neighborhood and the other in Sherman Oaks, CA — represent the latest test of the technology installed in a larger store environment. Amazon first deployed the system in its Amazon Go convenience format before including it in its newer Amazon Fresh grocery stores.

Dilip Kumar, Amazon’s vice president, physical retail and technology, writing in a company blog said that the technology has been adapted for the upcoming Whole Foods locations. This, he wrote, included expanding its “computer vision algorithms to support all of the Whole Foods Market selection people have come to love.” He provided examples of customers buying from stations inside the stores, such as self-service fresh-squeezed orange juice and mochi ice cream. He added that, “We also integrated with Whole Foods Market’s checkout and payment processing systems to accommodate customers who want to either shop with Just Walk Out technology or via the store’s self-checkout lanes.”

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey said the use of the technology will offer another way for these stores to “surprise and delight” its customers. That experience, he said in a statement, will mean that customers at the two stores “will be able to shop for fresh, thoughtfully sourced products that all meet our unparalleled quality standards, receive exceptional service from our team members throughout their shopping trip, and save time by skipping the checkout line.”

Some have suggested the shopping experience in Whole Foods stores has deteriorated as a greater percentage of its sales are now made online for pickup or delivery. Customers often find themselves shopping next to the chain’s own shoppers who are picking orders for those placing orders online. The ratio of orders placed for pickup vs. delivery may increase going forward should Whole Foods expand upon a test launched on Aug. 30 that requires Prime members in Boston, Chicago, Manchester, NH, Portland, ME, and Providence, RI, to pay $9.95 to have their grocery orders delivered.

Another question arising from the deployment of the Just Walk Out technology at Whole Foods is whether the news is a clear indication that the expense of fitting it for physical retail makes it practical in the development of new stores but unfeasible in existing locations.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What are the potential and limitations of Amazon’s Just Walk Out and similar technologies to provide cashierless experiences in stores? What do you think is the most effective means for eliminating the checkout pain point for customers?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"The fact that this is going into new store builds only speaks volumes as to the limitations of the technology."
"I think many customers have already discovered the best way to avoid the checkout pain point is by ordering online and using delivery or pick up."
"It will take time for this tech to continue to come down in price so that it becomes a realistic option for retail."

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26 Comments on "Will Just Walk Out tech work for Whole Foods?"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

Amazon continues to advance its pioneering Just Walk Out technology and the expansion into much larger Whole Foods Market stores is an important step. But this is only one more step in what I expect to be a long road of development before it becomes widely deployed. As I noted when Amazon first launched their Amazon Go stores, the amount of technology, including sensors, cameras and the ongoing support of these complex systems is significant. Implementing this technology in a 20,000-30,000 square foot grocery store would represent an enormous investment that I suspect will remain cost prohibitive. Just Walk Out technology is here to stay, and it will continue to grow and evolve, but I believe that it’s still years away or until it becomes less expensive to deploy and maintain.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

My concern is that the technology investment per store is high. Over time, the price will come down and the technology will be refined. For the moment, we should treat it as an R&D pilot.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

Cashierless experiences in mainstream grocery stores will become more commonplace. Why? Because, for the most part, registers represent friction for consumers and retailers. For shoppers, they consume time and they are a hassle because of the unloading and loading of goods. For retailers, registers take up space and require labor. There is a very clear incentive, over time, to reduce the number of registers. That said, there are two caveats. First, registers will not be completely eliminated because some people can’t or won’t use Just Walk Out technology or because they enjoy the interaction with cashiers. Second, the speed with which this happens depends on the reliability of the technology in a larger store environment and the cost of implementation and maintenance.

David Naumann
BrainTrust

Great points Neil. I agree that autonomous checkout will eventually become mainstream once the technology investment can deliver a positive ROI. Amazon has continued to perfect the technology since it opened the first Amazon Go store to its employees five years ago. Several other companies have developed similar cashierless technologies, which will create competition for Amazon and drive down the costs.

Ryan Grogman
BrainTrust

The inevitable future of retail is cashierless checkout – be it via Just Walk Out technology, advanced self-checkout, or “bring your own mobile POS device” checkout. After proving the viability in their Go stores, this is the logical next step for Amazon’s advanced technology. As noted, the key question is the cost of the technology and infrastructure required to ensure things run smoothly. These initial stores will likely be very upside down in terms of ROI but should these prove out, then the implementation model should continue to see lower costs as more stores are rolled out. I would expect Walmart to continue to push additional functionality and marketing for its scan and go technology in the near future as well.

Nikki Baird
BrainTrust

The fact that this is going into new store builds only speaks volumes as to the limitations of the technology. Amazon is being aggressive about trying to take the tech to market to all kinds of retailers (I suspect they need volumes of scale to bring down the overall costs). But showcasing a new-build install isn’t going to reassure much of anyone, especially in the current challenging physical store environment.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

#Exactly Nikki.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

Nikki, can you even call it frictionless?

Lisa Goller
BrainTrust

Just Walk Out’s greatest potential is an abundance of insights from end-to-end visibility of how customers navigate a store.

Analyzing in-store shopping actions will help Amazon personalize omnichannel marketing for both Whole Foods and Amazon Fresh. Shoppers will come to expect similar speed and convenience from other retailers.

Limitations include losing lucrative shoppers who resist the option of mobile pay.

Raj B. Shroff
BrainTrust

The potential for Just Walk Out is great, it gives shoppers another way to check out based on their needs for that particular trip. If it works exactly the same way as Go, I don’t see any limitations for the shopper.

For the retailer, dealing with training the shopper on the tech will be an issue. It works at Go because that has attracted savvy shoppers and the basket is small. At Whole Foods, with a larger basket, the added complexity might make shoppers head to SCO or traditional as they choose the path most familiar. Over time that should change as more retailers adopt this tech. Monitoring theft with larger baskets could be an issue. The loss of impulse sales is also a potential limitation, impulse at checkout is a profitable area for stores.

So far, JWO is the most effective means for eliminating checkout pain. The best way is to never set foot in the store and have it available curbside or delivered. 😉

Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

Neil may call checkout friction – I like to think of it just as much as interpersonal contact. When you go cashier-less you give up a chance to engage your customers and find out more about their experience. For example, every Publix cashier asks me a.) how am I today and b.) did I find everything I was looking for. Saying no to the latter immediately triggers staff to find it (if it’s there). So yes, they’ll continue to develop the technology, but checking out is less painful and creates more opportunities than they might think.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

This is funny to me (though it also offends me, to be honest). WFM just finished putting traditional SCO into 100 of its stores.

Let’s be clear — Just Walk Out is not frictionless. Theoretically, the stores will save on expense in exchange for spending Capex. Frictionless is, an employee does the following: takes a product out of the cart and puts it on the belt, scans it, bags it, puts it in a cart and carries it out to my car for me. Frictionless is also Instacart-like (though they have a ways to go with substitutes) and I pick it up at the curb or you deliver it to my door.

I think the technology is still too expensive and maintenance-prone, but hey — if it works in two stores, WFM will save more expense and look more profitable.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

I agree. Look at my comments…

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

Did you say, “retro-fit?” Yikes! The “R” word is not met well by most CFOs, especially in grocery, the land of tight margins and high “distressed” numbers. But I see this as another Amazon test anyway. As in, “can we make this work at scale?” It will be interesting to watch and, as usual, you have to give them credit for trying to match the ease and convenience of online shopping. Who else is attempting to compete like that?

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

I remember not too long ago when Amazon was thinking about marketing Just Walk Out to other retailers – so this is not a surprise, but as most of us here have said in the past the larger the footprint, the more equipment needed to adequately utilize the technology, the larger the investment. At some point the technology will become more commonplace, like electronic shelf labels over a decade ago.

Ananda Chakravarty
BrainTrust

Not sure how many grocery shoppers are looking for “surprise and delight” per Mackey’s comments. Most are slogging through their weekly shopping and making sure they have beverages for the weekend and bread for their sandwiches. There is a shopping experience and a functional experience. The problem with Just Walk Out tech is that there are so many lower cost alternatives that will be more attractive to retailers and, practically speaking, by the time it’s rolled out in stores it may be outdated. No doubt retailers will move towards checkout free options, but there’s no compelling reason for most retailers to be first in this tech, especially from their largest competitor.

C Davis
Guest
14 days 17 hours ago

My thoughts exactly. Isn’t it cheaper to invest in smart carts that don’t require major store retrofitting but practically allow one to just walk out?

Oliver Guy
BrainTrust

Amazon’s approach of scaling within Whole Foods as a full-sized supermarket makes sense as a way of being able to prove and position with other customers. I would suggest that the biggest areas of limitation are fresh produce sold by weight – dealing with this without adding additional packaging could well be difficult. Queuing is by far the biggest pain with in-store shopping therefore technology that eliminates this is critical. Self-scanners are a great way to help this but still have a point of friction as you exit the store. Just Walk Out seems to be the most logical approach as it completely eliminates that.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Not having actual data at hand to understand things like shrink, problems in digital payments, etc. – which we really need to make any intelligent judgement – we can assume the largest current barrier is cost. But what we do know is that technology become cheaper and cheaper to produce as it scales and evolves and that labor costs will arguably only increase going forward and for the foreseeable future. So — while I hear all the objections — if it works, and I have no idea if it does or not, it will one day be common practice. The first UPC projects were incredibly expensive but now we assume they were there when the first supermarket opened. The real question is how many people are going to go back to actually shopping in physical stores if or when the pandemic ever ends.

Kai Clarke
BrainTrust

This is a great use of Amazon’s technology but the real question is the cost, and will it be easy for stores to adapt to in their existing store formats?

Peter Charness
BrainTrust

Just Walk Out is really hard and expensive to do as store sizes and product breadth increase. And the capital costs skyrocket. In smaller stores the ROI is largely based on reducing cashier costs which is not all that feasible when minimal schedules are in place anyways. So on a pure economic basis Just Walk Out is still a tough sale. As a showcase “brand statement” maybe this makes sense, but that’s still a hard call for Amazon and not very attractive for most retail.

Jennifer Bartashus
BrainTrust

It has taken a long time for Amazon to roll this technology out to a larger store format where much bigger baskets are in play, so it may mean the scalability of the application, cameras, etc. is improving. However with only two stores it is hardly a massive transformation effort. It will take time for this tech to continue to come down in price so that it becomes a realistic option for retail. As for customers, there is a balance to strike between losing sight of the shopper vs. the benefits of technology or cost savings. Take self-checkout. For some, it is a breeze and reduces checkout friction. For others, it is a source of annoyance and anxiety. The key is having a range of solutions.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

As long as the technology works, customers will enjoy the experience. And I have confidence that if anyone can do it, Amazon can. One consideration is bagging the groceries. A “professional bagger” knows how to distribute the different types of foods based on fragility and weight. Just a thought!

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

I think many customers have already discovered the best way to avoid the checkout pain point is by ordering online and using delivery or pick up.

Venky Ramesh
BrainTrust

Because of the nature of their business — natural/organic products, working with local brands, and an upscale image — Whole Foods operates at an industry with high gross margins (30-50 percent), which gives them the ability to absorb costs of such high-tech experiments. Eventually, technology costs will come down, attracting more grocers to try out the tech. In the meanwhile, if Whole Foods can drive higher loyalty by reducing friction, they will be able to capture higher market share and emerge a winner.

Harley Feldman
BrainTrust

The Just Walk Out technology has been under development by Amazon for several years. Its potential is to eliminate any waiting in line and stopping at the register to check out. The challenge is recognizing all items in the store regardless of size, color, format, orientation and placement; quite a set of challenges. While Amazon is implementing cameras to perform all of these functions, another technology to do this is RFID. RFID will track items in the store and be able to deliver real-time inventory counts, although the path for tagging all items will be long and challenging. There are several efforts in this area to also track and reduce food waste which I don’t see Amazon addressing with the Just Walk Out technology.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"The fact that this is going into new store builds only speaks volumes as to the limitations of the technology."
"I think many customers have already discovered the best way to avoid the checkout pain point is by ordering online and using delivery or pick up."
"It will take time for this tech to continue to come down in price so that it becomes a realistic option for retail."

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