Inside Amazon’s ‘dystopian’ store with no tills, booze ‘bouncers’ and surveillance cams

I was one hour and 40 minutes and eleven miles away from London’s new Amazon Fresh supermarket before I had a clue what I’d spent in there.

I was already home and munching on my impulse-purchased cinnamon scroll from Britain’s first ‘no till’ store before a receipt of my purchase popped up on my phone screen.

I immediately clicked through to the Amazon Shopping app to assess the damage.

For £18.89 – not terrible, but not exactly cheap either.

I visited the new supermarket at 59 The Broadway, Ealing, west London, on Friday as it drew its first flocks of shoppers curious to try out the experience.

What do you think of Amazon Fresh – will you shop there? Join the debate in the comments below…



Amazon brands its own butter in Amazon Fresh
I can’t believe it’s Amazon butter

How it works

Surveillance technology allows shoppers to simply scan in using a QR code then place items in their bag.

Instead of handheld scanning equipment, the sophisticated ‘Just Walk Out’ camera technology tracks shoppers’ movements and determines the items they take off the shelf using machine vision.

Amazon tells me the system sets out to answer the question: “who took what?”

A spokesperson explained: «Anything a customer takes off the shelf is automatically added to their virtual cart. Anything they put back on the shelf comes out of their virtual cart.



West London shoppers Clair and Sarah bought some treats for their kids from Amazon Fresh
West London shoppers Clair and Sarah bought some treats for their kids

«When customers are done shopping, they can just leave the store. Later, we’ll send a receipt and charge the customer’s Amazon account.»

So instead of paying at the till, shoppers simply walk out and the app tallies the items picked up and charges them directly to the bank card attached to their Amazon Shopping app account.

The surveillance system concept has been labelled ‘dystopian’ by privacy campaigners.

Some UK unions fear artificial intelligence-staffed stores will form a blueprint for slashing jobs, even as the coronavirus pandemic-hit world is hailing supermarket staff and delivery drivers as key workers.

I decided to check it out for myself, saving my ‘top-up’ shop ahead of the weekend’s grand lockdown activities of making banana bread and drinking at least one bottle of wine.



Shoppers exit without having to pay using a till at Amazon Fresh London
Shoppers exit without having to pay using a till

How to shop at Amazon Fresh

At the entrance, a group of Amazon staff (paid £10.80 an hour – or just shy of the London Living Wage) stood outside and guided shoppers.

They told us to open the Amazon Shopping apps on our phones and check the correct card details were attached.

I opened the trolley symbol in the app, then tapped the ‘Fresh Code’ tab.

I scanned the code at a security turnstile as I entered the store, much like you might use your phone at a Tube station.



Pasta on shelves at Amazon Fresh
Pasta fans will find a broad selection at Amazon Fresh

Shoppers were being guided by friendly staff wearing face masks who pointed me to brown paper bags bearing Amazon branding.

I asked if I could use my reusable bags instead and they agreed.

It was disarmingly simple. “So I just walk around and put things straight in my bag?”

“Go for it, straight in your bag. You don’t have to do anything else,” a shop assistant told me cheerily.



Staples such as milk appeared competitively priced compared to rival supermarkets at Amazon Fresh in London
Staples such as milk appeared competitively priced compared to rival supermarkets

The first thing you will notice is the ‘Amazon’ brand and ‘British produce’ marks emblazoned on almost everything.

Some items carried Morrison’s markings – Amazon Prime’s same-day delivery online shopping service has a deal with the brand and upmarket US grocer Whole Foods.

Amazon’s physical store opens to an ample fruit and vegetable and meat selection.

Just next to that is an Amazon Hub – so you can pick up your sausages and your parcels in one visit.

The fare is of similar pitch and quality appearance to Waitrose – think fancy ready-meals, a large ravioli range, hoisin duck wraps, on-trend chocolate-orange desserts.

The supermarket has mimicked its rivals’ meal deal strategies, offering ‘night in’ package deals of a ‘main and side’.



The self-service coffee machine at Amazon Fresh comes with oat milk
The self-service coffee machine comes with oat milk

A fellow shopper picked up a couple of packets, then noticed it was two not three items for £5.

We both felt it was a bit steep and moved on.

I crossed paths with him again in the chilled aisle as he planned his Friday night dinner.

He showed me a packet of chicken breasts – noting he’d have to use it by tonight anyway as the meat expired tomorrow.

I checked the app’s ‘basket’ throughout my shop to see if the items were dropping into my virtual trolley in realtime.

They weren’t – but I figured the camera technology would wait for me to leave the shop before giving me a final receipt, reckoning it was watching to see if I would put anything back.

I went to inspect lunch options – noting on the way the decent-sized ‘free from’ selection, and that staple items like bread, milk, eggs and butter and tinned goods appeared to be competitively priced.

My shopping list included: flour, baking powder, baking soda, a loaf of bread, oat milk, butter, bananas, a bottle of red wine, and dishwashing liquid. I left with just one impulse purchase.

Here’s what the full shop at Amazon Fresh, Ealing, west London cost on Friday March 5, 2021.

My Amazon Cinnamon and Almond Swirl, 80g £0.85

Amazon Our Selection Super Seeded Farmhouse Loaf, 800g £1.25

By Amazon Rainforest Alliance Bananas, Pack of 5 £1.25

By Amazon Unsalted Butter, 250g £1.65

Dr. Oetker Bicarbonate of Soda, 200g £1.60

Dr. Oetker Gluten Free Baking Powder, 170g £1.60

Fairy Original Washing Up Liquid, 433ml £1.00

McDougalls Plain Flour, 1kg £1.64

Morrisons Gran Montana Malbec Reserve, 75cl £6.00

OATLY The Original Oat Drink Semi, 1L £2.05

Total: £18.89

A broad selection of sandwiches, wraps, and salads looked likely to appeal to shoppers of all tastes, but the prices and gourmet selections felt similar to the M&S just down the road – or the Pret-a-Manger a couple doors down from that.

I wondered what would stop shoppers who saved time on their seamless Amazon Fresh shopping experience from popping elsewhere on their lunch-break to pick up a snack and coffee at competing prices.

But in the spirit of a review, I popped a cinnamon scroll pastry in my bag (cheap, tasty, as sticky as these things should be).

For one-stop shoppers, the supermarket also featured a user-operated coffee machine dispensing Oatly oat milk.



Amazon Fresh London in app shopping receipt screenshot
The Amazon Shopping receipt tells you exactly how much time you spent instore down to the second

I was tempted to have a go on it, but another shopper told me it was broken.

He was unsure how the surveillance system would know he hadn’t got his coffee, but a staffer had told him someone would come to fix it soon.

We both unconsciously looked up at the ceiling as if to check whether the Matrix was sending someone to our rescue.

Within seconds, a smiling employee was upon us bearing armfuls of milk and promising she could fix it.

I moved on to the booze section, where a locked gate and real-life employee waited like a bouncer granting access to a nightclub.

There’s little more humbling than waiting at a self-checkout till for a supermarket worker to glance at your tired eyes over a face mask and confidently hit the “visibly over 25” button on the touchscreen.



Amazon Fresh alcohol section
The sealed-off booze section with bouncer checking IDs closest I’ve been to what felt like a nightclub VIP area lately

I didn’t get ID’d at the little Amazon Fresh nightclub either. But being let into the sealed-off section was like being ushered into the VIP area. I pored over the shelves – finding a modest but decent wine selection and clocking some local London craft beer.

I popped a discounted Malbec in my bag and with no tills to pay at the exit as promised, I made a ginger attempt at walking out the door.

“I feel like I’m shoplifting haha” I told the security guard, who laughed at me then pantomimed a gallant, sweeping gesture to the sliding doors: “You can just go straight out.»

The privacy debate

«[Amazon Fresh] offers a dystopian, total-surveillance shopping experience,» Silkie Carlo, from privacy watchdog Big Brother Watch, told the BBC.

«Amazon’s intense tracking of shoppers will create larger personal data footprints than any other retailer. Customers deserve to know how and by whom these records and analytics could be used.»

Amazon told the Mirror privacy information was laid out for shoppers to read on its site: «We take data protection very seriously and all personal data is treated in accordance with long-standing policies.

«As noted on in-store signage in our Amazon Fresh store in the UK: Once you enter the gates, we use in store technology (including cameras) to link the Amazon account and payment information you provide to your presence in the store. We do the same with your guests.

«You can access your in-store purchase history in your Amazon account. Otherwise, we will associate information collected by our in-store technology about your visit with your Amazon account for up to 30 days.»

The review

After my shop, I waited outside Amazon Fresh about another 20 minutes, constantly refreshing the app to see what I had spent – to no success.

I know what you’re thinking: ‘Just use your maths you big twit.’

In fairness to Amazon, if I was to visit the supermarket again I would be aware I should carefully tally my purchases.

But I hadn’t known going in that the items would not appear live in the app.

And the warm and bright atmosphere, and seductive ease of popping groceries into my bag was just so distracting.

When I walked out and realised I had no idea what I had spent I nearly performed a slow-clap for Amazon.



Supermarket groceries from Amazon Fresh
The final haul which cost just under £20

It’s clear the shoppers are the most valuable products in the store.

This is true of other supermarkets too – every last one is laid out to entice shoppers to spend and inspire toddlers to throw tantrums in the aisles.

Rivals had rolled out self-scan devices for shoppers long before this latest gimmick.

But the relative ease of the experience and the surveillance technology both add an extra layer of temptation at Amazon Fresh.

Everyone else I spoke to had the same experience.

I polled four shoppers outside the shop, and not a single one could tell me how much they had just spent.

We were all so charmed – or perhaps fooled – by the novel experience of wandering around the store popping items in our bags: we had forgotten to do our mental maths.



Two-for-one deals were on offer at Amazon Fresh
Two-for-one deals were on offer in the ready-meals section

One local shopper, railway worker Paul, bought a cappuccino and a box of snack bars. He told me the coffee was decent.

Paul enjoyed the shopping experience, but admitted he too was unsure what he’d just paid exactly – guessing it was “about a fiver.”

“I went for a coffee as a bit of an experience, it’s a nice concept – it’s not cheap but I expected that,” he told me.

“You definitely could get carried away, that’s the thing – it’s a little bit too easy and if your maths isn’t that great like mine isn’t – it could probably get expensive.”

If the goal is is to create an environment in which a shopper can easily impulse purchase – all the while giving away precious consumer habits data – then Amazon has nailed it.



Amazon Fresh two for £5 night-in deal
A fellow shopper felt three for £5 would have enticed him to get this ‘night in’ deal

I’m old enough to remember going to the supermarket with cash long before smartphone banking and self-checkout tills.

I would add up my purchases in my head as I popped items in the trolley, with a budget in mind.

Today’s supermarket adventures are pitched to a modern customer experience – cash use is slumping – even more so during the pandemic.

Today a shopper might expect to pay for their purchases by on their phone or by tapping a contactless card.

I have grown too accustomed to watching my purchases added up on a checkout till – putting some back if I’ve overstretched.

I already find myself forgetting to use my arithmetic, and relying on my banking app – where I get an immediate spending report popping up on my phone every time I make a purchase so I know the exact score.



Amazon Fresh bakery aisle
Yes OK I’ll have a cinnamon scroll then

Which is why I found Amazon’s bricks-and-mortar approach disarmingly clever.

The tech giant’s genius lies in its devotion to consumer demand for convenience and instantaneity.

But it’s a business model which has left it facing accusations of exploiting its round-the-clock global workforce of warehouse workers and delivery drivers, and calls for UK tax reforms to target its soaring profits.

I can order a package on Amazon Prime in seconds by dropping an item in my virtual basket, pressing and thumb-print on my phone screen – and the little brown cardboard package will be at my doorstep on the same day.



Amazon Fresh sandwich display
The sandwich display features plenty of options

With that in mind, surely Amazon’s wizards are capable of creating a shopping experience that adds and subtracts items from real and virtual bags in realtime.

If the monitoring technology must be so state of the art that it isn’t possible to update live – then I can only speculate whether that is a decision one of the biggest companies in the world has made quite deliberately.

I asked Amazon about this, and the company told me shoppers will receive their receipt within a few hours of completing their shopping trip, both via email and in the app.

Other shoppers noticed it too – despite being overwhelmingly pleased by the experience.

Local mums Clair and Sarah decided to check out the store to buy treats for their children.



Local shoppers showed off their first ever Amazon Fresh purchases

Clair told me: “We just went for a browse and to see the range and what types of things they had.”

“For a convenience store the cost compared well but there was a lot more range and options.

I was intrigued by her description of the shop as a ‘convenience store’ – reminding her that Amazon wanted her to think of the 2,500 sq-ft shop as a ‘supermarket.’

Both women agreed that in terms of price and range, it was much more like a small Sainsbury’s Local – one of which is just across the road.

I asked if they’d send their kids shopping at the supermarket of the future.

They laughed, and Sarah told me: “We were just talking about that. My daughter is 18 and she’s going off to uni and she thinks she’ll just go shopping at Amazon on my account, and I said ‘I don’t think you’ll be doing that.’

«I don’t think it will teach children the value of what things cost.”


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