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Goodbye, cashiers: Amazon tech lets shoppers skip the checkout

Amazon's retail technology lets customers tap a credit or debit card, grab items off the shelves and walk straight out — but do the privacy risks outweigh the convenience?

Grab-and-go shopping experience now available at arenas in Calgary and Toronto

Members of the media try out Amazon’s ‘just walk out’ pay-and-shop technology at a kiosk at Scotiabank Arena, in Toronto, on Oct. 10, 2023.

If there's one thing shoppers dislike, it's waiting in line. That's a problem Amazon hopes to solve with a technology that eliminates the checkout process, rolling out in Canada this month.

At some food and drink stores inside Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary and Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, customers can now tap a credit or debit card or payment-enabled phone to open a gate, grab items off the shelves and leave without checking out. Their payment card is charged instantly, with no cashier and no checkout involved.

"You can be in and out of one of our stores in under 10 seconds," said Jon Jenkins, vice-president of Just Walk Out Technologies at Amazon.

Ziad Mehio, vice-president of information technology and food and beverage for Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation, says arenas are an ideal launching point because customers are often turned off by long wait times to buy snacks, which can weigh on sales.

"We're trying to help reduce those lineups and create those transactions where they can get back to their seat really, really quickly and not miss out on anything," he said.

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The system has been available in the U.S. since 2018, and can now be found at more than 150 Amazon-owned and third-party retailers. Jenkins said the technology could be applied broadly, with possible expansion to grocery stores, airports and university campuses.

Not-so-private purchases

To make it all possible, the ceilings of the store are covered in a web of cameras and the shelves are lined with sensors. The system then uses computer vision, machine learning and artificial intelligence to track when an item is picked up or put down, add the item to a virtual shopping cart and charge the customer.

"There's no facial recognition, definitely no facial recognition, in a Just Walk Out store," Jenkins said. "We don't use any sort of biometrics."

However, he noted that Amazon's system does gather information about purchases and pass it off to the third-party retailer: "We say, 'Hey store owner, here's a cart and a credit card that just got processed at your store,' and then they own that information."

That information is valuable to businesses, offering insight into product demand and consumer behaviour. But for customers, the convenience of cashier-less shopping could come at a cost, said Ann Cavoukian, a former privacy commissioner of Ontario. She urged shoppers to ask more questions.

"Ask for the details of what they're going to collect, how long they're going to retain it, … will they be sharing it with any other unauthorized third parties without your consent?" she said. "Make them say no."

Cashing in on cashier-less

There are other startups that make competing cashier-less technology, such as Trigo, Grabango and Brysk. Aisle 24 is a cashier-less convenience store chain with a slight variation — shoppers use their phones to scan and pay — that has dozens of stores across Canada.

Maxime Cohen, professor of retail and operations management at McGill University, predicts this could soon become the norm. "It's really growing very fast and we see a huge amount of invested money in that sector," he said.

While this technology may raise concerns that cashier positions will be eliminated, Jenkins says it doesn't necessarily lead to job losses — "they just tend to do different things than they did before."

Cohen helped bring a cashier-less Couche-Tard convenience store to the McGill campus so researchers could examine the impact of this type of technology. He agrees that cashiers in these stores are more likely to take on different responsibilities.

"The goal, hopefully, is to help and assist workers to become super-workers, where they can provide better quality service, be more productive and focus less on the tedious and annoying tasks," he said.

Still, whether the technology will be adopted more widely will depend on whether it catches on with consumers. The ones CBC News spoke to outside Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday had mixed opinions.

"It sounds really convenient and effective, and it seems to be the way we're going," said Stewart Moracen.

Others, like Katerina Brezovska, waved off concerns about giving up their personal information in favour of saving time.

"We are tracked by using Google, by using Instagram and other social networks. So we already lost our privacy."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nisha Patel is a senior business reporter with CBC News. She's been reporting on business and economics for more than a decade and has lived and worked in New York City, Edmonton and Calgary. She lives in Toronto with her husband and two kids. Find her on Twitter @nishapatel.

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