February 15, 2017

Amazon is Trying All Kinds of Weird Stuff in Seattle


It seems that Amazon will stop at nothing in their war on the cashier. As our UK correspondent Nikki Griffiths wrote last week, the mega-retailer is seeking real estate in London for an Amazon Go: the cashier-less convenience store where customers purchase items by scanning as they shop. With these dramatic shopping innovations headed overseas, imagine the wild stuff that Amazon is cooking up in its own backyard.

Indeed, according to Nick Wingfield writing for the New York Times, Amazon has turned Seattle into a veritable laboratory for new types of in-person consumer experiences.

In addition to Amazon Go and Amazon Books locations, Seattle will soon see the introduction of a new type of Amazon grocery store. In this model, customers will place orders online, then schedule a time for curbside pickup. It ensures the freshness of your standard grocery store visit, but without those pesky cashiers asking you how you are and making you watch as they bag all of your stuff. Facilities are under construction in the city’s Ballard and SoDo neighborhoods.

Wingfield says of the city’s storied relationship to retail:

Seattle has long been receptive to new ideas in retail. REI, Costco Wholesale and Nordstrom are among the store chains that got their start here. Starbucks opened its first coffee house in the Pike Place Market in 1971.

Like Amazon, Starbucks tests projects locally before exporting them elsewhere. It opened its first Roastery, a high-end coffee bar, in an old Packard car dealership in the city, and plans to open up to 30 more in places as far-flung as Shanghai, New York and Tokyo.

Several years ago, it came up with a new idea for building drive-through Starbucks stores out of recycled shipping containers to promote sustainability, trying out the design just south of Seattle before opening others across the country.

Ok, that all makes some bit of sense to me. But then what is going on with another of Amazon’s latest initiatives, the Treasure Truck? It’s a parade float-cum-delivery truck that roams around the city dispensing items that customers have bought via the Amazon Mobile App. Or, in the words of the truck’s marquee, it’s a “one item flash sale pop up shop on wheels.” In its short life it “has sold wild mahi-mahi steaks, paddle boards and Nintendo game consoles.”

Aside from being a mobile billboard, which surely Amazon does not need exactly, I see no way for the truck to justify its own existence. It’s an experiment within an experiment; it’s the Road Warrior truck of our hyper-capitalist future; it’s the demented town crier in the increasingly demented company town.

While Amazon has never been particularly clear about its ambitions for expanding into the brick-and-mortar world (also known as “the world”), we can, at the very least, deduce that it is seeking an increased marketshare in many sectors, and that it hates cashiers.

Which raises the question: how will people meet romantic partners in the great films of the cashier-less future? I suspect Amazon Studios is on the case.



Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.