Curiosity brings out the crowds at opening of Amazon’s first full-size cashierless grocery store

The line to get into the new Amazon Fresh store in Bellevue, Wash., winds through the parking lot on Thursday. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

BELLEVUE, Wash. — The first full-service Amazon Fresh grocery store to take advantage of the retailer’s “Just Walk Out” cashierless shopping technology could well become a tourist attraction.

That’s what was on the mind of Romy Wada, who made the half-hour drive from Auburn to the store at Bellevue’s Factoria shopping center at 4:30 a.m. today to be the first in line to enter.

“I work for a tour company,” Wada explained as he waited in the morning sunshine. “We are handling Asian people, and sometimes they’re interested in the supermarkets at Amazon. So I just had to come here to check out everything.”

The crowd grew to more than 200 people, queued in the mall’s parking lot and down the sidewalk, by the time the doors opened at 7 a.m.

There wasn’t exactly a mad rush: Amazon staff members checked with customers as they moved up the line, to make sure they were ready for the cashierless shopping experience.

Amazon operates more than a dozen Amazon Fresh grocery stores across the country, but the Bellevue store is the first one to use the shopping surveillance system that was pioneered at the company’s Amazon Go convenience stores.

Video camera systems keep track of what Amazon Go customers are putting in their baskets (and what they’re taking back out), with the aid of computer vision and artificial intelligence modeling. Customers scan a code on their smartphones, and the bill is automatically charged to their Amazon account when they walk through the exit turnstiles.

Amazon Fresh opening

Technically speaking, this Amazon Fresh store isn’t completely cashierless, and despite what the sign says, customers don’t exactly “Just Walk Out.” There are a few cashiers on duty, just in case shoppers prefer to pay cash. And because there’s an app-less option, customers have to scan their ID when they enter the store and when they leave.

At the same time, Amazon has streamlined the cashierless payment system: Instead of requiring a specialized Amazon Go app, the company has built an “in-store code” feature into its main shopping app, for use with any of Amazon’s brick-and-mortar stores. You can also use Amazon One, the company’s palm-reading biometric ID app. Or you can just scan your credit card.

Even though Amazon Fresh is a non-traditional grocery store, the traditional tricks of the grocery trade are still in play — including direct-mail circulars and coupons. And the opening-day specials almost blatantly took aim at the traditional attractions offered by Costco, another shopping empire headquartered in the Seattle area. One sign advertised rotisserie chicken for $4.97 (vs. $4.99 at Costco). Another offered pizza at $1.79 a slice (vs. $1.99 at Costco).

How much business will this new breed of Amazon Fresh store take away from more traditional grocery stores, ranging from QFC and Safeway to Costco and Walmart?

The final verdict may have to wait until the novelty has worn off. Amazon says it will analyze the results from its experiment at the Bellevue store and “go from there” when it comes to using the technology at other Amazon Fresh or Whole Foods groceries.

But for now, the “Just Walk Out” experience should keep the tourists happy — even if the “tourists” are coming from downtown Seattle, as Amazon quality assurance manager Yuhendar Balasubramaniyan and his father, Narasimman Balasubramaniyan, did this morning.

The family bought a couple of bags of vegetables and fruit, plus a 12-pack of soda, just to see what it was like.

“It’s easy,” Yuhendar said. “Your shopping is done in 10 minutes.”

“Quite wonderful,” his father said.

Check back for updates to this report, including Alan Boyle’s own shopping experience. For what it’s worth, Boyle has lived (and shopped) in the Factoria neighborhood for 30 years.

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