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Shopping in the UK's first Amazon Fresh store, without tills

Daily Mail logo Daily Mail 04/03/2021 Claire Toureille For Mailonline
MailOnline logo © Provided by Daily Mail MailOnline logo

A shop where you pop what you want in your bag and waltz out the door without queuing at the till sounds rife with pitfalls, but that's the seamless experience promised by the UK's first Amazon Fresh store. 

Opened today in Ealing, West London, customers scan a barcode from the Amazon app on their phone and inside, cameras and depth-sensors developed with deep-learning artificial-intelligence techniques monitor what customers pick up and put back on the shelves. 

Once done, there is no till, and the shoppers can leave the store without technically paying, but will receive a receipt later and be charged for their purchases via their Amazon account. 

The store is the first of its kind in the UK, and Amazon, which already has 20 similar stores around the US, is reportedly looking to open some more in Greater London.

Campaigners have raised concerns regarding shoppers' privacy. The security system around the shop doesn't use facial recognition, but Amazon has said in-store information would only be associated to a customer's Amazon account for up to 30 days. 

Femail reporter Claire Toureille visited the store in Ealing to see if the experience was as 'frictionless' as Amazon claims it is. 

a group of people standing in front of a store: Femail reporter Claire Toureille travelled to the first Amazon Fresh store,  which opened today in Ealing Broadway, West London, where customers can walk out without going through a till. Pictured: Customers must have the Amazon app on their phone and scan a QR code on one of the sensors upon entering the store © Provided by Daily Mail Femail reporter Claire Toureille travelled to the first Amazon Fresh store,  which opened today in Ealing Broadway, West London, where customers can walk out without going through a till. Pictured: Customers must have the Amazon app on their phone and scan a QR code on one of the sensors upon entering the store a person standing in front of a store: Once in the store, shoppers can just pick items up, make up their minds, and bag them up before leaving © Provided by Daily Mail Once in the store, shoppers can just pick items up, make up their minds, and bag them up before leaving

Entering the Amazon Fresh Ealing store feels like stepping in the not-so-distant future, where everything is digitalised... And heavily monitored. 

Before walking in, I was instructed to download the normal Amazon app on my phone, and to tap on my 'basket.' There, I had to tap the 'Fresh' option to receive a code on my phone, which opened a QR code on the app. 

A staff member guides me in, I tap my phone on the sensor at the entrance, and an automated door lets me in. 

The store itself looks like any other local shop. It is smaller than I pictured it on my way there, and feels very 'normal,' with aisles stocked with fruit and veg, toiletries, meat and fish, drinks and breakfast essentials like cereals and coffee. 

a person standing in front of a store: Loose items like fruits are priced per kilo, and there are prices for bagged items on all the shelves

Loose items like fruits are priced per kilo, and there are prices for bagged items on all the shelves
© Provided by Daily Mail

There is a bakery aisle with coffee machines working with oat milk, a nice touch for non-dairy shoppers.  

Most of the vegetables and fruits are bagged in plastic. One can still buy some loose vegetables, which are priced by the kilo.

I picked a Pink Lady apple and paid 60p for 160g. A banana cost me 25p. 

Like in your local supermarket, staff are moving around the store, restocking items that are going low. They can answer questions if needed and seem friendly and happy to help, but staff presence is overall low.

At the corner of each aisle, posters remind shoppers of the way the shop works: 'choose what you like, bag as you shop, just walk out! We'll email a receipt,' they read.  

A few people are going on with their shopping already around me, including a man pushing a stroller around like he's shopping at that store everyday. 

a person standing in front of a store: Shoppers look at the bakery section of the shop, which comes with two coffee machines and drinks © Provided by Daily Mail Shoppers look at the bakery section of the shop, which comes with two coffee machines and drinks

A few others, like me, stop to have a look around, or rather, above, as we take in the bewildering number of cameras steadily recording everything from the ceilling. 

I count eight cameras in one aisle alone, but there must be much more around the store. As I pick a loaf of bread priced 90p, I catch three cameras above me. Amazon now knows I have a thing for seeded, wholewheat slices. 

This thought doesn't leave me as I move on to the aisle for dairy products. Every decision I make is steadily being monitored. 

It is understandable why campaigners have raised concerns about privacy upon the shop's opening. 

diagram: Posters on each aisle remind customers of the concept: they can choose what they want to buy and buy it before walking out

Posters on each aisle remind customers of the concept: they can choose what they want to buy and buy it before walking out
© Provided by Daily Mail

How does the Amazon 'Walk Out' technology work? 

The ‘contactless’ payment system uses hidden sensors and cameras - similar to those in self-driving cars - to track what customers take from the shelves.

 Amazon premiered their 'Walk Out' technology in similar stores in the US, which opened in 2018. 

The system was created using deep-learning AI, algorithm and fusion sensors around the stores. It's so accurate it can distinguish which magazines or particular item one customer is picking. 

However, recent advancements mean the system can now cope with customers selecting from different bouquets of flowers, magazines and greetings cards - it could not distinguish accurately enough between one choice and another before.

Hundreds of cameras are propped round the store, but they don't use facial recognition.  

The idea that a company as big as Amazon is recording my every move is unsettling: in the span of thirty seconds, they've seen which brand I was drawn to, what items I changed my mind about, and which ones I finally decided on. 

I shudder to think about the amount of data they could collect about me in with that one decision: will I get ads for seeded bread or dairy-free milk in the upcoming days? 

Nevertheless, I go on with my shopping: I pick flowers, apples, a banana and some milk with the bread.  

I simply pick the product I want and bag it, ready to move on to the other part of my shopping. 

Amazingly, the system seems to know not to charge me for items I put back on the shelf. However, I will only know for sure that no mistake has been made once I receive the receipt which will be sent to my Amazon account after my shopping trip.  

a person standing in front of a store: Customers can buy flowers, which are located by the fruit and veg section at the entrance of the store

Customers can buy flowers, which are located by the fruit and veg section at the entrance of the store
© Provided by Daily Mail

But this seamless concept raises some questions: how do the camera know what I am legitimately trying to buy and how much can they really see.  

As I walk out of the shop with my flowers, bread and milk and a couple of more essentials, it strikes me that I have no idea what I just spent. 

There are price tags under every item in the shop, but you don't get a tally of the total on your phone before leaving and you only receive the receipt on your Amazon account. 

While this would be find for a quick nip to the shop when you only need a few items, this does not feel budget-friendly if you just randomly pick items as you go. 

Smile, you're being recorded. As Claire picked up a loaf of bread, she caught three cameras behind her (top right) © Provided by Daily Mail Smile, you're being recorded. As Claire picked up a loaf of bread, she caught three cameras behind her (top right)

You'd need to calculate everything as you go to keep track of your spending and since you just have to walk out once you're done, it feels you could overspend on items you don't really need.

The fact that the store limits face-to-face interaction is also reassuring in the age of Covid-19, however, shoppers were not exactly socially distancing in the shop to begin with. 

People hoping to shoplift should think twice about trying to bag freebies: the heavy camera presence makes it nearly impossible to sneak so much as a candy bar into your jacket without one of the sensors picking up on it. 

Stepping out of the store, I'm not asked to scan my phone again: magically, Amazon will charge me for the items I've picked without me having to do anything. 

I still find myself scouting around for a staff member - or anyone - to tell me that, yes, it's okay, I can just walk out with my bag without notifying anyone. 

a person standing in front of a store: If someone change their mind, they can put the items back on the shelf without being charged

If someone change their mind, they can put the items back on the shelf without being charged
© Provided by Daily Mail

The whole experience is exhilarating, and clearly, customers around me are liking this way of doing things. 

But as I log onto my Amazon app moments later, I still have no receipt showing me how much I have spent for the items I bagged. 

In fact, I am only informed of what I spent once I get home, with the details of my order and total amount in my 'order history' tab. 

£10 for the lot, but as I close the browser, I realise: parading in front of more than 100 cameras and deep learning sensors for 15 minutes holds much more value to Amazon than what I put in my basket, and I've just given it up for free. 

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