How Technology is Changing the Face of Retail

This week, retail giant Amazon announced plans to open a fourth Amazon Go location in Chicago next year.

The online mega-retailer currently has two stores operating downtown. They sell drinks, snacks and packaged foods on a grab-and-go model: instead of paying a cashier at the end of their trip, Amazon Go customers scan an app on their phone as they enter the store.

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“Traditionally you check out (your) items at the counter, and you’re waiting in line, and people always seem very anxious to get out of the store,” said Heather Zheng, Neubauer Professor of Computer Science at the University of Chicago. “What (Amazon’s) doing right now is to automate the process, so there is no waiting in line.”

But what kind of information is Amazon collecting – and will this retail model be the way of the future?

“When you move inside a store they use multiple cameras, mounted usually on the ceiling, to track users and their movement. They also use these cameras to track what kind of items the user picks out from the shelf,” Zheng said.

Combined with weight sensors on the shelves and tiny RFID tags on each item, Amazon is able to not only manage its merchandise, but get data about what its customers are looking at and ultimately buying.

“If they know what you want or are able to track what you’re buying now … they personalize everything to you, they can send you coupons and say, oh, maybe you should navigate to this particular store or this particular aisle so that we have the right merchandise for you.”

Zheng says while some customers might be excited to have a personalized shopping experience, others might worry it’s too intrusive.

“Are we being tracked by all these machines all the time? How do we ensure that each one of us will be provided with some kind of customized privacy level? Privacy is also very hard to define because it's very personal and also depends on the context,” Zheng said.

There’s also the worry that high-tech, cashier-less stores will mean fewer jobs. Zheng says it’s going to take time for all this technology to mature and make its way into widespread use, and that they key for future generations of workers is appropriate job training.

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