A Real Solution to a Real Problem

 In 301

Amazon has just done something nobody ever thought they would do—they announced plans to open a brick-and-mortar store. The first of what could grow into many stores will be located in Seattle and is scheduled to open in 2017. You are probably thinking what I did when I read this astounding news—Amazon is taking another step in their market wars with Google, but why a BnM store? Obviously to notch up their competitiveness to another level in the race to deliver faster.

Well, not so fast—that is not at all what Amazon is doing, although they are getting faster in a different way—a way that actually solves a real problem in retail: checkout. Not long ago we expressed ourselves rather bluntly about two so-called checkout solutions that, although highly touted, delivered solutions to a problem nobody really cared about all that much. In both cases the so-called solution to the so-called problem was to speed up the checkout process.

One of those dubious solutions was the Datalogic Jade X7. We saw it in action at a local Cosmopolitan Marketplace store that recently opened (and just a quickly closed) in Aurora, Illinois. I don’t think the Jade X7 was the reason the store didn’t survive, but it certainly didn’t create any sense of excitement because if anything, it was slower than a conventional checkout. Flashy but disappointing.

The other dubious solution was the Digimarc invisible barcode, which was “shown”, to the extent that anything invisible can be “shown”, as barcodes all over a box of cereal, speeding up retail checkout by eliminating the need for the checker to locate the barcode on the box to show it to the scanner. The accompanying promotional but not-so-exciting video shows a checker even more robotically than usual moving a fictitious customer’s purchases across a scanner at at incrementally faster speed. Considering how efficient most checkers are—around here at least—one can only imagine how many seconds this barcoding breakthrough must have saved—maybe 30 seconds for a cart full of groceries? But what an injustice to the poor checker whose job just went from “routine” to “suicidal”.

Neither of these breakthroughs have addressed the actual problem with retail checkout which is not how long it takes to scan everything. The real problem is all the redundant package handling: once from the shelf into the cart, once again from the cart onto the conveyor, then from the conveyor into the bag, and finally the bags back into the #%&! cart. Digimarc has wisely refocused their marketing strategy on deploying their invisible barcode technology into supply chain security rather than retail checkout.

Amazon has a real solution. They call it “Just Walk Out” technology. No queue, no registers: load the cart and leave the store. It works with the new “Amazon Go” app which the user installs on their smart phone—but the phone isn’t used as a scanner. It identifies the user with a QR Code that gets the customer into the store through a turnstile. Amazon explains that Just Walk Out uses a combination of artificial intelligence, computer vision and data technology gathered from multiple sensors installed throughout the store.

How will it detect and prevent theft or fraud? Amazon hasn’t commented. But the experimental store will undoubtedly confront and hopefully sort out these and other challenges and problems—and perhaps opportunities to make this truly exciting and truly problem-solving concept a reality—finally!


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