“Welcome to Amazon Go,” a cheery man told me, explaining that there were two ways I could shop at the retail giant’s automated convenience store—both of which involved downloading an app. “Oh, I was going to pay cash,” I said. And then it got weird.
First announced in 2016, Amazon’s cashier-less Go stores have been popping up across the country since then. At 6 a.m. this morning, the company celebrated the grand opening of the 13th Amazon Go, located in Midtown Manhattan. So, feeling both hungry and curious, I headed down to Park Avenue to see “the world’s most advanced shopping technology” for myself—and tried to buy lunch the old-fashioned way.
The cheery man, whose name tag said “Pablo” on it, mumbled “we’ve got a cash customer” into a radio microphone on his lapel, which had the effect of instantly making me feel like I had done something very wrong. Amazon Go’s entire sales pitch, you see, is that it’s fully automated. Thanks to the power of high-tech surveillance, customers can duck in and out and be billed for their purchases with no human interaction whatsoever. Growing criticism of cashless stores (given teeth by some local legislation) argues that these businesses discriminate against the poor and unbanked. Looking to avoid that particular fight, Amazon has claimed its Go stores will accept cash but hasn’t exactly been forthcoming about how that will work. And for good reason, it seems.
After a few minutes and multiple attempts to radio for backup, Pablo pointed me to the far end of the 1,700-square-foot store. “There’s going to be a stand there. A gentleman by the name of Rahim will help you,” he said, swiping me through the clear plastic turnstyle with his phone. Granted, 11 a.m. isn’t exactly the lunch rush, so the Amazon Go employees might have been short on things to do, but I felt a great deal of attention while I tried to figure out if this tiny store had anything resembling a decent sandwich and maybe a protein bar.
“Oh you’re the cash customer,” one worker said, as I tried to figure out why anyone would come here to buy a rack of warm La Croix. “Just head back there when you’re ready,” another worker told me, pointing 20 feet away. I really cannot stress how few places there could possibly be to hide a guy named Rahim in a store of that size, but I appreciated the assistance regardless. Eventually, I settled for an Amazon-branded buffalo chicken wrap and a bottled iced coffee.
And then there was Rahim, with a small table on wheels, rolled up against the back endcap on the center aisle. That it couldn’t be seen from the entrance of the store was maybe just coincidence, but it was obvious the table was not a permanent installation, and I’m certain it was rolled back into whatever recess it came from after I left. Rahim disappeared for a moment to grab the hand-scanner (a Clover Flex by the look of it) and in the 45 seconds he was out of my immediate field of vision another worker radioed over to “request his position.”
Jesus. I’m so sorry Rahim.
He doubled back and I apologized for possibly getting him in trouble. “Am I the first cash customer?” I asked. “How’d you know?” he replied, scanning the $8 worth of food I had caused all this fuss over. Rahim punched in that I’d paid with a 20 and the scanner told him the change I was owed. He reached inside the stand, which hid a regular cash till. “I don’t want to touch your sandwich,” he said, directing me to put my pre-wrapped stuff in a garish orange Amazon Go-branded tote, which he proudly informed me was reusable. (I will not be reusing it.)
So there you have it: Amazon Go accepts cash. But seemingly only if you specifically ask for it, are okay with waiting twice as long as a normal convenience store purchase would take, feel good about being extensively tracked the entire time you’re there, and are willing to possibly get a retail worker in trouble for no good reason.
I never found a protein bar. After finishing the wrap I felt immediately sick to my stomach. I hope Rahim can forgive me.