The Tech Behind Amazon’s Cashierless Store In Chicago | WBEZ
Skip to main content

Morning Shift

The Tech Behind Amazon’s Cashier-less Store In Chicago

Amazon opened its first cashier-less convenience store outside of the company’s home base of Seattle on Monday, in the heart of downtown Chicago.

The Amazon Go store at 113 S. Franklin St. is a place to buy snacks, beverages and pre-made to-go meals, but unlike a 7-Eleven or White Hen (R.I.P), there are no cash registers and no need to check out.

There’s an app for customers and the store features cameras that track shoppers’ movements.

But how does the technology of a cashier-less store work? And what about customers’ privacy?

Morning Shift explores the technology behind Amazon Go, potential privacy concerns and whether we’ll be seeing this type of store from other retailers in the future.

How the Amazon Go Store Works

Joseph Turow, professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania: You go in there, and they do have these entryways—it’s not like you just walk into a lobby. You go past these turnstile-type things.

Tony Sarabia: Sort of like you’re getting on a train.

Turow: Exactly. And then you walk in, and it is sort of a medium-size 7-Eleven-type store. They have food to go...and then you put it all in a bag—there’s no shopping carts—you put it all in a bag, and you walk out. And I have to say that I felt like a shoplifter. 

Sarabia: How does the [Amazon Go] app know that someone is picking something up, putting it in a bag or whatever, and then it’s charged? Because you’re just walking out.

Turow: All the products are wrapped in particular ways. They don’t have an apple just sitting there. So my guess is that there are chips, you know, NFC-type chips on every product, so that’s part of what’s going on. I looked at the ceiling. It’s painted black, but there are lots of cameras, as they said, and there’s Lidar, meaning [it measures] you getting close to a product or you moving away. So you can take something off the shelf and put it back. It knows this. So I think it’s a combination of your phone, the cameras, and also the chips on the food that you buy.

How Collecting Your Data Benefits Amazon

Turow: In this case, I think what they’re trying to do is simply experiment. But in the larger sense of what Amazon is, anything that Amazon does gets into this big pot of information that they have about you. What you watch on Amazon Prime, what you buy on the Amazon store creates profiles of you on Amazon. Until now, they haven’t used that very much. The main purpose was to suggest new products for you to purchase. In the last year or so they’ve been ramping up their advertising business, and, incredibly, they have all this information that, if they wanted to, they can use to decide what kinds of ads to send you. Even more, perhaps, than Google down the line, because they know precisely what you bought, what you’ve watched, where you’ve gone in stores, what kind of phone you have. All of this stuff is part of the pot that they categorize you through with these very complex algorithms.

Does Amazon’s Privacy Policy Allow This?

Turow: It takes a while to get used to reading [privacy policies]. Once you have, they follow a certain pattern. But I would just encourage your listeners to go to Target’s privacy policy, for example. You know, Target basically says, “We can take information about you from anywhere, we can buy it from anywhere, we can sell it if we want to, we can bring other companies to our website so they can follow you.” There’s a lot of things in there that basically make you say, “Why are they doing this?” And the reason these companies are doing it partly is because they’re scared of Amazon.

GUESTS: Joseph Turow, professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication, author of the 2017 book The Aisles Have Eyes: How Retailers Track Your Shopping, Strip Your Privacy, And Define Your Power

Joanne Joliet, research director at the research firm Gartner, where she focuses on in-store technology

LEARN MORE: ‘Just walk out shopping’: Amazon Go opens its first Chicago location of its cashierless convenience store (Chicago Tribune 9/17/18)

What Impact Will the Amazon Go Store Have On SMB Retailers? (Software Advice)

‘Aisles Have Eyes’ Warns That Brick and Mortar Stores Are Watching You (Fresh Air 2/13/17)


This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation, which was adapted for the web by Char Daston.

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.

CLOSE X