SAN FRANCISCO — A year after Amazon opened its first cashier-less store, startups and retailers are racing to get similar technology in stores around the world, letting shoppers buy groceries without waiting in line.
If they work, cashier-less stores will not only save time but maybe money too. From cameras and sensors, the stores will know when shoppers pick up a product and put it down, and can send them a discount to tempt them to buy it.
But the monitoring system underlying cashier-less technology is bound to raise new privacy issues and worries about customer data falling into the wrong hands, especially if stores deploy facial-recognition software in the omnipresent cameras watching shoppers.
"It could be scary, and it could be creepy," says Peter Trepp, CEO of FaceFirst, a Los Angeles company that so far has only sold its facial-recognition tools to retailers trying to identify shoplifters and other criminals. "But if it's used to give people a 30 percent coupon on something they want, that is going to be a nice benefit. That kind of experience will help people embrace the technology."
Amazon has a head start in the United States, with 10 convenience stores in three cities: Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle. The stores sell salads and sandwiches, groceries and everyday items like toilet paper and Advil.
Shoppers scan an app to enter the Amazon Go store, grab what they want and walk out. Cameras and sensors on the ceiling track what's taken so their credit or debit cards are automatically charged when they leave.
"It was just a phenomenal experience," said Tom Hadfield, who bought a Coke Zero in a minute and five seconds at one of the Go stores in San Francisco while visiting the city recently.
Hadfield, who runs a technology startup in Austin, Texas, said it reminded him of the first time he hailed an Uber car.
"You just know it's going to be the future," he said.
Amazon doesn't say how much money its cashier-less stores make. But analysts from RBC Capital Markets estimate sales per square foot at Amazon Go's two San Francisco stores are about twice that of a typical U.S. convenience store.
Several startups are pitching cashier-less technology to other retailers. Zippin, Grabandgo, Trigo Vision and Inokyo say they are negotiating deals with retailers in the United States and other parts of the world, although none are ready to identify them yet.
Sam's Club, the warehouse-style club owned by Walmart, opened a test store in Dallas that has no cashiers. Instead, shoppers use their smartphones to scan products and pay. 7-Eleven is testing something similar at 14 stores in Dallas.