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Just Walk Out

Amazon's Just Walk Out technology at Whole Foods is another step toward a friction-free world. That's not a good thing.
Just Walk Out

In the dystopian world of 1984, a palm-reading screen that allows you to walk in and out of a grocery store without waiting in a checkout line is not one of its terrorizing features. Orwell, for all his insight, did not anticipate that a technocratic future would be driven less by visible, powerful censorship overlords than by the slow, steady enticements of that great gift of modernity: convenience.

In the Glover Park neighborhood of Northwest Washington, D.C., a recently reopened Whole Foods has drawn the attention of national media. Since Amazon purchased the grocery store chain in 2017, changes to Whole Foods stores were relatively minor—mostly just perks for Amazon Prime members. That is, until the Glover Park storefront, previously closed for four years due to a rat infestation, reopened last week, launching Amazon’s “Just Walk Out” technology for the first time in a regular grocery store.

Several of Amazon’s own storefronts already use Just Walk Out, but now you can, too, by either swiping the credit card connected with your Amazon account when you walk into the store, or using biometrics to connect the prints of both your hands to the same. After the initial setup, shoppers can buy groceries with as little resistance as unlocking an iPhone: tap palm, fill cart, walk out.

There’s still self-checkout available at Glover Park, in case you’re hesitant to scan your palm or fear looking like a shoplifter. After a week of being open only to Amazon customers, the store is now open to the public, so you presumably could still shop without signing in if you scan your own groceries. But reporters and Washington natives have remarked on some key differences in the store, most notably the role of employees. That is, there’s not much of one: employees monitor the entrance and help you sign in; they instruct you to replace any item you don’t want exactly where you found it; they still hang out behind the meat counter to make custom cuts; and they swoop in to stop you from taking a photo or video anywhere in the store.

Employees do not slice your bread—that’s on you now, careful with the machinery. They do not scan or bag your groceries, or offer to walk your cart out to your car (though, unlike a Publix in the South, few if any stores in the DMV provide the latter services). Amazon swears this won’t reduce the number of jobs they offer, but that seems either optimistic or misleading.

Amazon’s vice president of physical retail and technology is a man named Dilip Kumar. In the New York Timeslaunch piece for the new storefront this week, Kumar told the reporter that Amazon is treating Whole Foods as “another step in its tech expansion into retail stores.”

“We observed areas that caused friction for customers, and we diligently worked backward to figure out ways to alleviate that friction,” Kumar said. “We’ve always noticed that customers didn’t like standing in checkout lines. It’s not the most productive use of their time, which is how we came up with the idea to build Just Walk Out.”

Notice what Kumar is saying here, and what he is not saying. He is not saying that Whole Foods customers complained about long lines at Whole Foods– he is saying that people, in general, don’t like lines. He is not saying that Just Walk Out technology was a market “need” that Amazon swept in to fill, anymore than there is a market “need” for self-driving cars. What he is saying is that Amazon found a way to make itself necessary by alleviating a friction that, while perhaps trivially annoying, was an assumed part of life. Contra your assumptions, Just Walk Out says human nature isn’t fixed—lines aren’t required—and, if you were privileged and smart and progressive enough, you wouldn’t have to wait like other people. You can hear the marketing already: You could get a graduate degree in the time you spend standing in line at the grocery store. Now, you can.

There goes the plot of Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne.” You can’t loiter with an old lover in the checkout line if there is no checkout line. Then again, AirPods probably already killed that one.

Putting aside the fact that probably no one will use this newfound time—what, 10 minutes, a couple of times a week?—to become an astrophysicist or run for president, removing all friction from our lives is not actually a good thing. We know instinctively that hundreds of cameras on the ceiling and a technology that knows you bought the organic avocado, not the regular one (even though it was in the wrong bin) is creepy. But we may be so conditioned to desire efficiency and avoid pain that it doesn’t occur to us that a life lived without any resistance is actually the greater evil.

One of my favorite activities on a Saturday morning is visiting a farmer’s market. Every one I’ve been to is different, from the giant produce hub in my hometown in Tennessee to the small collections of vendors in rural Michigan, the serious farmers of Northern Virginia, and the racks of clothes and jewelry at D.C.’s famous Eastern Market. Each has its own charm, but they all share the distinction of bringing people together, in person, to shop, barter, and bump up against one another in small spaces to sort out the wheat from the chaff. You likely won’t get all your groceries at one market, and almost certainly not from one stand. These markets invite friction. It’s sort of the point.

(Ironically, Whole Foods is technically named “Whole Foods Market.”)

One who seeks a life without friction must, by necessity, edge out these behaviors—especially interactions that could lead to relationships, life’s greatest source of friction. Whether that means replacing workers with technology or lines with palm-scans, the future of shopping places convenience over community.

Still, farmer’s markets don’t seem to be going anywhere. If we can’t change the forces converting the grocery store into another asylum of social distance, perhaps the solution is just to return to markets altogether, and leave the immaculate shelves and camera-lined ceilings to collect dust in our absence. It would require us to limit our exotic taste buds, but this too may be an improvement.

But if the future of grocery shopping is contactless, the future of civilization needs us to just walk out.

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