Chicago Tribune: Amazon and the twilight of the grocery line


By Chicago Tribune



Americans spend — waste — a year or two of their lives waiting in line, wishing it would move faster, staring daggers at any potential interlopers, fixing with disdain anyone who dawdles or delays the line’s steady clip.

For those trying to avoid long queues, the grocery store is one of the most daunting challenges. You can pick the hours that you believe will be the least crowded, but then there’s only one clerk on duty. You can take your chances in the 15-item line only to be flummoxed by a shopper who unfurls a raft of coupons or one who decides to write a check for the groceries s-l-o-w-l-y.

Now, thrilling news: Line-generated angst could soon vanish.

In Seattle, Amazon is testing a grocery store known as Amazon Go that allows customers to waltz in, choose items and then … leave. All without lining up to be checked out. Amazon calls it “Just walk out technology.”

Here’s how it works: Customers tap their cellphones on a turnstile as they enter the store. That logs them into the store’s network. As they pick up items and plunk them in their carts, sensors and other technology track the items and display the tally on a virtual cart. When a shopper leaves (presumably bagging his or her own groceries), an Amazon app tallies the bill and charges the customer’s Amazon account.

Amazon plans to open its store to the public early next year.

Self-driving cars? A human landing on Mars? Another Cubs World Series win?

Meh.

A similarly anticipated milestone in human history — the Eradication of the Grocery Store Line — appears imminent.

OK, two provisos:

• We can already hear the plaintive cries of people (including President-elect Donald Trump) who mourn the loss of all those checkout clerk jobs. We don’t relish the idea of putting people, aside from certain politicians, out of work. But we assume the friendly produce guy would still be there, stocking the shelves. (Robots can’t do that yet, right?) And you’d still need people to monitor the premises to make sure everyone was playing by the rules or to check customers’ ID for alcohol purchases. And someone to keep all the tech running. Cashiers can be retrained for the new jobs this will create.

• We’ve been disappointed before. Remember the self-service checkouts at groceries a few years back? Many of them were yanked out because of rampant technological glitches and increased losses from theft. Is a similar glitch waiting to happen here?

Don’t get us wrong. We believe in ample sales forces in stores to help customers navigate an often-dizzying array of choices. We don’t want to be waited on by robots. We don’t want to scan the department and find nary a human in sight who can answer a question about a shirt or a skirt.

We do, though, believe technology can be harnessed for the greater good — in this case to streamline the interface between the customer and ringing up the sale — to short-circuit infuriatingly long lines.

We may soon have the power to eradicate this universally loathed instruction: Take a number. Wait your turn.

Some lines, to be sure, are exciting shared experiences. The long queues that form around Apple stores in anticipation of a new iPhone. The line for tickets to a new “Star Wars” movie. The long wait for the latest trendy restaurant, which stokes the appetite and confers bragging rights. (We waited two hours for a table!)

Technology has disrupted nearly every aspect of American life, not always for the better. Why not let it erase one scourge of modern life — the sludge-slow line?

Imagine world peace? Sure. But first, imagine a more exciting prospect: a world without a grocery checkout line.

By Chicago Tribune