Monday, May 20, 2024

Amazon’s Just Walk Out tech has come under much scrutiny. And it may be everywhere soon.

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The “Just Walk Out” technology powered by Amazon at its stores and third-party retailers like airports and sports stadiums has been the subject of a lot of scrutiny recently. 

The technology, which debuted in 2018 with the first Amazon Go convenience store in Seattle, uses artificial intelligence, a lot of cameras and some sensors to enable shoppers to grab what they want and leave without stopping at a cash register.

Some customers say they love getting in and out without standing in lines, But at least one shopper said she’ll never walk into another store with the technology since she got overcharged and charged for the wrong item. Amazon said its technology is “extremely accurate.”

However consumers feel about the technology, they’ll likely need to get used to it as Amazon says it’s in use at its 140 third-party stores, and that number will double this year.

But some customers may have a hard time getting comfortable with technology that collects data on them as they shop – and the possibility of mistakes on their receipt that they discover long after they’ve left the store, says Kannan Srinivasan, a professor of management, marketing and technologies at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.

If the technology is not virtually error-free, then “it’s not ready for prime time,” Srinivasan said.

Why has Amazon been in the news? 

The Just Walk Out tech has been in the spotlight recently. Earlier this month, the Seattle-based retailer said it was swapping the system, in place at more than half of its 40 Amazon Fresh grocery stores, for Amazon Dash smart carts, which show prices on a screen before the customer walks out.

Then, news media reports said that Amazon may rely on 1,000 workers in India to support the shopping technology.

Amazon has said in an interview with USA TODAY and reiterated in a blog post Wednesday that the number of workers reported in India is not accurate, and that their workers are not watching shoppers live.

Amazon’s move and reports about overseas workers being behind the technology prompted questions on social media about why Amazon was ditching it at some stores, how exactly the shopping system worked, and whether it would pop up at other retailers.

Amazon said customers loved Just Walk Out technology in smaller stores for a quick shopping experience while customers in larger stores preferred the Dash Cart to give them a screen with the real-time ability to see prices while they shop. Amazon said in a blog post on Wednesday it had begun expanding the Dash Cart to some third-party grocers but did not give further details.

Still, Just Walk Out technology has also sparked some distrust. The shopping experience was the subject of a parody on Saturday Night Live in 2022 in which Black shoppers, worried about extra scrutiny, made exaggerated motions for the cameras and talked loudly about what they were taking off or putting back on shelves before walking out of the store without paying. 

What is Just Walk Out? 

The genesis of the Just Walk Out idea was to help make shopping at a brick-and-mortar location easier, said Jon Jenkins, vice president of Just Walk Out at Amazon Web Services, a division of Amazon, in an interview with USA TODAY.  

“They hated standing in lines in 1924, they hate standing in lines in 2024 and they’ll hate standing in lines in 2124,” he said.

The technology allows customers to walk into a store using Amazon One (where customers can register their palm to connect with their payment method), a credit/debit card, or a mobile wallet app, shop for items and leave. Customers are automatically charged for their purchases. 

Customers who are already registered via Amazon One or customers who stop at a kiosk in the store and give an email address will receive an itemized receipt after they leave the store. Otherwise, customers who swipe or tap their method of payment will only see a total charge on their card after leaving, Jenkins said.

How does Just Walk Out tech work? 

Cameras and sensors on shelves work with artificial intelligence to see what customers are taking – or putting back – to charge the customer, said Jenkins. 

“Then we apply some computer vision technologies and deep learning technologies to create the customer’s receipt as they exit the store,” Jenkins said.

Not all shelves have sensors and the technology mostly relies on the cameras and AI, he said. That’s because while a sensor can tell if a box of Tide is taken off a shelf, it can’t sense how many lip balms are picked up because they’re so light, he said. 

“You don’t have to modify your behavior in the store in any way to have it work correctly,” Jenkins said when asked if people need to move in exaggerated motions.

Are there other retailers using similar checkout-free technology?

Amazon isn’t the only company with grab-and-go technology. Some retailers have scan-and-go apps, where customers scan their items as they shop and then pay in the app, but that still requires the customer to take action by scanning each item.

A company called Grabango on Tuesday announced that it partnered with an Aldi store in Aurora, Illinois, to launch the discount grocer’s first AldiGo. In a news release, Grabango said “the technology, which uses computer vision to identify and keep track of every item in the store, allows shoppers to exit the store without waiting in line or scanning items.”

The Grabango technology uses cameras to keep track of what customers are taking or putting back on shelves. Instead of scanning in when the customer enters the store and simply leaving when done shopping, customers must stop at the Grabango kiosk on the way out to scan their app to complete the purchase.

In an email, Grabango Founder and CEO Will Glaser said the company could not discuss whether there are further Aldi expansion plans and an Aldi representative said the same. Grabango is also using the same tech now at some Circle K and Chevron stores and it will be going live at some 7-Eleven stores in June, Glaser said.

Just Walk Out does have errors

Some Amazon retail partners praise the technology as a way to quickly and smoothly get their customers what they want.

Lumen Field, where the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks and Seattle Sounders play, first opened its Just Walk Out technology-enabled store in 2022 and has nine locations – the most of any Amazon partner.

“Our goal is to get fans their snacks, drinks, and gear, and get them back to their seats as quickly as possible,” said Zach Hensley, Seahawks vice president of operations and general manager of Lumen Field in a statement provided to USA TODAY. “Amazon Just Walk Out technology has provided a great option for us to do just that.”

But not everyone is sold on the technology.

Elerie Thomas of Waldorf, Maryland, came upon a Hudson Nonstop store at Dallas Love Field Airport in July 2021. It was just a few months after the first airport store with Amazon’s Just Walk Out technology opened.

At first, she was puzzled.

“Where’s the register? Where’s the salesperson? And then (another customer) said, ‘No, you just get what you want and walk out,'” Thomas told USA TODAY.

She grabbed a sandwich and then went to get three snow globes for her granddaughters. She put one of them back, switching to a smaller model so each of her grandchildren would have the same-sized gift. Then she registered her email address on a screen in the back of the store and left.

But when she received her itemized receipt, she was overcharged by $1 for each of the two small snow globes and charged for a large snow globe instead of the third small one. The total overcharged was $7. She emailed Dufry, a sister company of Hudson stores, and asked for a refund.

She was asked for a variety of information, including her bank routing information and told that refunds were only given by international wire transfer.

Thomas replied that it was not worth $7 to give her bank information.

Three years later, Thomas said she still wouldn’t step foot in a store with the AI technology, even if she could see her itemized purchases before she leaves.

“I don’t trust it,” she said.

Jenkins said Amazon does not share error data. He added that he could not say exactly what went wrong in Thomas’ case and that while the technology “is extremely accurate,” there are mistakes. The third-party partners handle their own refund policies and procedures, and if a mistake is made at an Amazon store, customers can quickly request a refund in the app, Jenkins said. 

Hudson did not give a response when USA TODAY asked about the error Thomas experienced.  

Does Just Walk Out rely on 1,000 workers in India? 

Several media outlets have reported that there may be more to the Just Walk Out technology, with hundreds of workers in India playing a significant role. 

Jenkins reiterated that no workers in India or anywhere else are watching shoppers in real time.

Amazon is constantly updating its data and technology with “synthetic videos” it has created with “shoppers” pulling and putting various items off and on shelves to make the technology learn more, Jenkins said.

Jenkins said his employees are mostly spending their time inputting that data, similar to what other AI technology like ChatGPT does.

“There is absolutely no real time people watching …in a store,” Jenkins said. There may be times when a human is flagged to “spot check” a transaction after it has happened if the computer is unsure, he said.

Jenkins acknowledged that there are employees in India working on his Just Walk Out team, but said he could not say how many though it was fewer than the 1,000 that had been reported.

“The total number of employees that are doing that are well under what’s being reported – worldwide,” he said.

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Amazon is getting rid of ‘Just Walk Out’ technology at its grocery stores

While customers have said they enjoy the process, they wish they could view their receipts and savings while they are shopping, according to Amazon spokesperson Carly Golden.

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Will I see Just Walk Out tech in other mainstream retailers?

According to Amazon, there are plans to more than double the number of third-party Just Walk Out technology-enabled stores worldwide in 2024. There are currently 140. These include locations at entertainment venues, theme parks, hospitals and college campuses.

“There are going to be way more third-party stores in the world than there ever will be Amazon-operated stores,” he said.

Jenkins would not say if there were any large mainstream retailers the company is working with, other than to say that his division is happy to talk to any retailer.

But Srinivasan, the Carnegie Mellon professor, said he thinks the technology will be better accepted by consumers once there are few mistakes and if consumers have a choice of seeing everything they are being charged for before they walk out of the store – instead of getting surprised after.

People being charged incorrectly affects the trust factor and will turn off customers, said Srinivasan, a retail expert who researches data analytics and is familiar with Just Walk Out but has no affiliation with Amazon.

Is someone watching?: Does Amazon’s cashless Just Walk Out technology rely on 1,000 workers in India?

Customers also generally don’t trust technology that collects data on them via cameras and AI, he said.

Still, Srnivasan, who calls himself an early adopter, said he would use the technology if he came upon a store where he could test it. He also sees the benefit of that particular shopping experience if it works properly.

Srnivasan said he sees the number of small partner locations that utilize the technology to engage in fast transactions growing. But it will take time before other large grocers or mass-market retailers implement the Just Walk Out system. Consumers are going to need to be convinced it’s worth their time to get used to something new.

“Keep in mind this is a consumer who is hard-pressed to learn 100 different new things every day,” he said.

Betty Lin-Fisher is a consumer reporter for USA TODAY. Reach her at blinfisher@USATODAY.com or follow her on X, Facebook, or Instagram @blinfisher. Sign up for our free The Daily Money newsletter, which will include consumer news on Fridays, here.

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