Shoppers try Amazon's 'just walk out' shop in London (including accidental free coffee)

Unmanned branch in Ealing will use cameras and sensors to track shoppers

Amazon on Thursday opened a till-free grocery stop in the UK's capital, its first foray outside the US using automated checkout technology.

The 2,500-square foot Amazon Fresh shop in Ealing, west London, will use cameras and sensors to track a customer as they shop, charging their credit card for items taken after they exit.

Customers queued outside the black and green storefront under social distancing measures to be first to use the convenience store.

The outlet, according to Amazon, is the "first convenience grocery store to offer just walk out shopping in the UK" and its "first physical shop and grocery store outside of the US".

To use the new outlet, customers have to download an app and then scan a QR code before an electronic gate swings open and allows them to browse a range of Amazon-brand products.

On its opening day, a team of assistants, dressed in vibrant green jackets -- the same colour as the grocery shop's colourful branding -- were on hand to explain how the system worked.

Once they have bagged their items, customers don't have to show a card or let anyone know, they simply walk out.

"It was really strange, it felt like I was a criminal, because I was just taking things and putting them straight in my bag," said 71-year-old Ealing resident Philippa Dolphin.

"But apparently there are cameras watching me. And then you just walk out! It didn't seem right but I was assured it was okay!" she added.

The opening day was not without some hiccups. One customer The National spoke to discovered she had not been charged for her cup of coffee. The store was smart enough, however, to realise some items had been returned to the shelf.

Amazon has said the store, which is similar to 20 Amazon Go outlets in the United States, uses "deep learning" algorithms -- technology which allows machines to learn by themselves -- with cameras and sensors to tell what customers have picked up.

"It automatically knows what you've got in your basket and when you leave the shop it charges you and bills you automatically into the account you have set up," said Erica Ely, a 57-year-old local resident, holding her purchases on the street outside the shop.

Benjamin Rogers, 31, a sales manager who lives in the area, stopped in to buy ingredients for a cake and said the speed of shopping at the Amazon store made it appealing.

"I think the major advantage is the fact that sometimes when you go to the supermarket you can do your shopping and then it can be a five-, 10-, 15-minute wait to pay for your goods at the end" he said.

"This is just a simple way to cut through and walk out and finish your job."

Matt Birch, a former Sainsbury's executive who now leads Amazon Fresh Stores UK, said the brand which is also used for online groceries in the UK has looked to make the experience "as convenient as possible".

"We recognise that UK customers want to shop in a convenient way so we really think they will appreciate being able to walk in and walk out with the shopping they need," he added.

The retailer has also introduced a new private label food brand in the UK to be sold in-shop, called “by Amazon”.

Amazon, which was already growing in Britain before the pandemic and competing with a struggling retail sector, has seen its position strengthen since the outbreak and months of closure for shops deemed non-essential.

Shopper Mark Lloyd said it was "interesting" that Amazon was moving from online into "bricks and mortar retail business".

"It is kind of reversing the trend for e-commerce and digital shelves, so it is quite unusual in that respect," the 58-year-old creative director said.

Despite the ease of her shopping experience, Dolphin said she was somewhat troubled what about the arrival of the Amazon shop would mean in the long term.

"I am a bit worried that it is going to put other businesses that I use out of business. So yes, I am a little bit concerned because they are such a giant," she said.

Amazon's unmanned shops represent Amazon's biggest effort to reshape physical retailing and it has offered to licence the Just Walk Out technology system to other companies.

In the US, the company's Amazon Fresh outlets operate with conventional checkout lines and its till-less operations fall under the Amazon Go brand label.

An Amazon spokesman said there were no plans to change US branding to align with the UK offering.

Updated: March 4, 2021 11:49 PM

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