What are you left with once the technology novelty wears off? And what about the food?
Everyone is aware these days that Amazon is now a serious player in food culture: The evidence list is getting pretty long and ranges from experiments (drone delivery, meal kits crafted from online recipes) to serious commitment (nearly $14 billion plunked down in 2017 to own Whole Foods Market). Perhaps highest on the Amazon disruption barometer at the moment is all the hubbub emanating from the company’s new Amazon Go store, which opened this week in Seattle. Yes, Seattle’s in our backyard, so naturally we had to stop in to experience it.
The first hint that it’s a new food-shopping experience is that it feels like you’re entering a subway station. A row of sliding gates allows people to enter only if they have the store’s smartphone app, which is kind of neat in that it can feel like you’re beginning a journey. Once you’re in the store, though, the futuristic entrance experience rapidly veers away from a feeling of excitement to one of utility, since we are now presented with the store’s food and beverage offering, which is composed nearly entirely of CPG and shrink-wrapped, boxed and prepackaged, ready-to-eat/heat-and-eat meals, foods and beverages.
We’ve seen this type of “shrink-wrapped” packaged fresh food experience before (in countless convenience stores, Fresh & Easy, old Aldi and the early days of Trader Joe’s). Putting a lot of packaging and walls between the customer and the fresh experiences does trouble us, since the overall feeling we get from Amazon Go is one of a tremendous focus on technology with very few signs of the freshness, fun, vitality and narratives that are the greens fees for trend-forward food and beverage operations today.
Specifically, we found the store’s food offerings skewing much more toward “ready-to-eat convenience” with little signs or allegiance toward transparency and traceability — two hallmarks that signal premium food experiences to consumers today. Perhaps Amazon is working on incorporating QR codes for blockchain technology for the store’s products? If not, we’d suggest it, since consumers are increasingly expressing interest in learning more about the transparency and traceability of their food, and yes, this is clearly a technology playground first and foremost.
Despite its small size (at 1,800 square feet, the store feels more like an expansive, high-end convenience store), there is an extensive selection of ready-to-eat or heat-and-eat offerings along with an odd mix of branded products ranging from mainstream legacy brands to a few local and niche health-forward options. We’re not sure what the merchandising strategy is for the product sets that appear to be randomly placed (refer to image of “A taste of Whole Foods Market”), but they hint at a lack of both inspiration and understanding of current food culture.
We are left feeling that the overarching takeaway from shopping the store is that the most interesting aspect is walking out without checking out. The store accomplished this, but the shopping experience from the perspective of food culture and general emotion felt overwhelmingly soulless, very much like shopping from a giant vending machine or automat. Truthfully, the store seems designed by engineers to remedy some imagined need drawn on a white board: “Consumers need fast, good-quality, ready-made food and cannot stand in lines to pay.” Honestly, we wish they had spent a lot less time on the convenience factor and the no-doubt enormously complex technological back end and more time injecting a little food passion and joy into the front end of the operation — really, consumers today see food as food and love.
Boiling down food culture to imagined issues that can be solved with technology is just one part of food retail today. The rest, as any of today’s successful food purveyors will tell us, is fundamentally human with elements of theater, tastes, smells, experience and high-touch.
In the food world, technology can certainly be inspiring, but if the food itself is what drives interest and passion (as it does for today’s consumers), the technology is sort of meaningless in terms of having an ability to make emotional connections. In its purest form, technology becomes a functional benefit only. In the case of Amazon Go, if the coolest part about the store is simply not “paying” as you walk out, then can the current technology inspire consumers simply because they spent less time shopping and paying? The answer, of course, is no: Food culture today demands understanding a myriad of nuances that ladder up to quality food and beverage experiences. These range from narrative (Who made it? Where is it from?) to freshness cues.
Two significant issues that we noticed in the store were a complete absence of signs of fresh food production (workers kept restocking shelves via mysterious doors from some unknown place where presumably “food gets made”) and that there were no visible fresh unpackaged fruits or vegetables. Both of these are elemental cues to freshness for consumers today and are square one experiences for even the smallest food retailers (even c-stores offer bananas, apples, oranges) and successful fast casual restaurant operations (open, customized preparation).
We walked out with a salmon donburi meal kit for two for $19.99, which had easy instructions and nice wine pairing suggestions — one complaint: The label for the meal kit only said “salmon” and didn’t specify whether farm-raised or wild-caught (these things matter today, even though the inside of the package described it as “farm-raised”). On the plus side for this store, there’s a lot to be said for urbanites being able to pop in and grab essentials, but the lack of fresh items (nary an apple on offer) and ready-to-eat choices that aren’t prepackaged wouldn’t withstand comparisons to best-in-class examples like convenience-sized stores such as Wawa.
If the Amazon Go experiment continues, down the line, people are going to want both technology and human touch as well as more carefully studied cues to freshness and quality. If the coolest part about this store is simply not “paying” as you walk out, most customers are not going to return.
The big question here is perhaps not so much where Amazon plans to take the technology from here but whether Amazon can integrate technology with the passion for food that Whole Foods Market has become the gold standard for.
As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.