Frictionless Shopping

Frictionless. A state of mind we all dream of. Work where we don’t have to brush up against rugged discomfort, where everything goes our way. There are no bugs in the code. We are increasingly resembling the software engineer’s ideal work environment. It is no wonder the first of these machines appear as a black box, nestled at the base of another box, in a nondescript part of town, where the buildings uses are mixed to brown. Save for the logos, it can be hard to establish a sense of direction. Even with my traveling companion and current Seattleite, Conor, it was hard to get our bearings. Luckily, in Seattle, there is always the river, and it seems like no matter how far we go into the belly of a building, people can always find water.

No courtesy clerks. No greeters and best of all, no cashiers: Amazon presents Amazon Go, where shopping is “frictionless”. Chapter 4 (March 2016) of Google’s eBook from the Think With Google website defines frictionless shopping in relation to purchase made from smartphone apps. Amazon’s presentation of the future brings shoppers inside the smartphone, a proposition seemingly inline with the company’s disinterest in humanity and human appendages. Not exactly the stuff of dreams but instead a logical endpoint, the triumph of not filling a need but fulfilling needs we didn’t yet know we had. “Time and Space died yesterday. We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed!”—Amazon’s “frictionless” vision whole heartedly embraces the ramblings of the Futurist manifesto. The company has concocted a way to speed up the consuming ritual by cutting out the “friction”. “Friction” in the tech company’s lexicon of course means, people.

The only kind of person allowed in AmazonGo, the consumer, increasingly resembles a cog as their function is more and more simplified, and like a cog in good working order, it too is “frictionless”. The human element smoothed out – the mouth reduced to merely eating and drinking and no longer talking, no need in an automated store, there is no one to talk too. The body for consuming, no longer exploring, fearing, questioning, wondering, laughing, sharing. Amazon’s dim step toward the future has been secured with more to come.

Most people are aware of these weird implications. I made it a point to visit the AmazonGo store in Seattle, for the same reason anyone does, to satiate my curiosity. The draw is, a shopper can walk in, pick up a sandwich and walk out. Whatever they pick up will be automatically charged to the card in their pocket without said card ever having to leave their pocket. Does it really work? The most common word used to describe the store in my conversations with other curious is “creepy” and if I were to sum up my personal experience with the store it would be “novel”. Everyone in the store came for the same reason, to gawk at the absurdity of it and share it on social media. However, unlike Powell’s books or other one of a kind sites where selfie takers frequent, Amazon and companies like it are hoping to make this kind of thing normal.

I did have my sandwich, wrapped in plastic and then cardboard and then more plastic, and plastic bottle of water too- its just as they say.

Blocks away, the antithesis to AmazonGo lies against a hill and has for decades. As we entered and then left Amazon’s machine with unimaginable smoothness we decided to stretch our legs a little and walk to Pike’s Place Market. Flowers were on display and we negotiated space through crowds of people flowing through the old market like the way humans do when they come together, like water. The fish mongers throw fish and with each slippery heave and catch a group of children clap and yell with boisterous delight. To the side, a seasoned fish thrower coaches the new guy on fish in the Pacific Northwest. The place has a smell. The floor is lumpy at some points and slippery at others. My friend and I found a grocery store at the end of the building and closely inspected its beer section. We took turns exclaiming our own takes on the incredible victory of introducing spruce tips to beer, celebrated the people who pioneered it and then proceeded the rest of our visit to pragmatically assess the merits of the spruce infused ales available and breweries responsible for them. All of this had the effect of postponing our trip to the cash register. “Friction” if you want to call it that.

At the counter, I was so impressed by the size of a grinder sandwich that I commented on it to the guy next to me, he said he’d seen bigger in Vancouver BC and I made it a point to remember that. The lady behind the counter liked my shirt. We saw an artist that Conor worked with and, as artists do, managed to have a philosophical conversation on the nature of life. Conor had been working a new gig since he last saw his artist friend and past business partner,  that was where the artist found his opening. The viaduct was being torn down at the time, and not far from the artist’s stand, we stood and watched it for awhile. It will take years apparently. I told Conor about the worst hangover I ever had (absinthe made under a bunk in a UW dorm. I’m thankful I can still see).

You might say that theres more going on in Pike’s than eating and drinking. AmazonGo and Pikes Market can both exist on the streets of our cities, and to be sure, in some instance, Amazon’s feed bag makes more sense than Pike’s Marketplace, but the question I want to pose is, what do we actually want? Why does tech get away with calling human interaction “friction” That same day, the story broke that Microsoft will be teaming up with Albertson’s to provide a “frictionless” shopping experience. Online shopping shows exponential growth. Make no mistake, people do seem to want convenience, but what if we’re sleep walking into it?

The jaded view Pike’s Place as something akin to amazon’s perfected consumer ritual and write it off as simply touristy stuff, yet another form of consumerism. Another form of consumerism it may be, but I challenge the skeptic to not feel something more eating and drinking when a fish monger heaves a slippery fish to another and with each miraculous catch a group of school children roars with joy.  The food and space of Pikes Place has a narrative, a narrative of use. its uses are many and its frictions spurn yet more stories. People have found ways to pull narratives out of AmazongGo’s closest cousin, the convenient store, yet when you compare the two, the convenient store seems to have more in common with the marketplace than the frictionless grocery store. At AmazongGo there is no one to tell you to leave, but why would you stay?

Welcome

In 2017, the world’s largest online retailer merged with one of America’s most dominant supermarket chains.  The Amazon and Whole Foods merger is sure to have have an enormous impact on the grocery industry but the extent of that impact remains to be seen. Regardless of the pairings ultimate success, tech’s infiltration into the supermarket is a symbol of things to come. In 2018, Amazon built on the momentum of the merger and unveiled its latest retail innovation to the public, “Amazon Go”. Now, not only does Amazon provide a grocery delivery service, it also runs a brick and mortar storefront. It is appropriately named as it promises ultimate convenience with an overhead-obliterating hook: no employees.  This all adds to a dazzling equation: low overhead means lower prices, plus utopian levels of convenience equals serious competition.  Then, take that serious competition and factor in the overhanging, ever increasing exponents of technological growth and internet ubiquity and this results in what is likely Amazon’s pursuit: dominance. Technology has progressed to the point that it challenges the very existence of the grocery store as it is understood today. Impending automation presents many burning questions; the most pressing of which is, will the grocery store still stand in an automated utopia? And if so, what will it look like?

Some propose that the grocery store will return to its European roots, others predict that it will die out altogether — swallowed up by tech’s insatiable hunger. But really, no one knows what’s next.  We are all simultaneously observing the latest innovation which we have seemingly slept-walked into.  The aim of this blog is explore the various ways that grocery businesses address the challenge of their suddenly uncertain existences. Make no mistake, I write this with the firmly-held assumption that the grocery store will survive.  Our definition of it will undoubtedly evolve, but with an intimate love of grocery stores and firsthand industry experience, I know that there is much more to the grocery industry than putting food on the table.

The future implied by Amazon, one that champions speed and efficiency to serve each individual’s whim, is a withdrawn and necessarily isolated one, and yet the industry it seeks to disrupt has historically been just the opposite, that is, it is one of discovery and connection. As the movie theater gives way to Neftlix, and services like Postmates replace “dining out”, the decision of where we go to buy food may present one of the last spaces for people from all walks of life meet and meet in a creative way.  At a grocery store many individual stories cross paths in the roles of shoppers, employees, and vendors. In today’s grocery stores, aisles are populated by wanderers, whereas the grocery stores of the future will likely be populated by automatons and order-fillers. The difference in these experiences is stark.

What might be perceived as inefficiencies in fact promote exploration. Conversely, to bring about convenience, Amazon has to enforce more rigid limitations in unseen ways. Streamlined shopping elevates the generic by making decisions easier to make.  To choose whats already known or trust someone or something to choose it beats out the slower, often inefficient process of exploration in a game of speed. The “utopia” prescribed by automation is without the butcher and their advice on recipes and preparation, replaced instead with lists and search results, or perhaps a convincingly voiced robot with a name.  I write this sentence with my meat manager friend in mind.  Whenever I request hangar steak from him, he makes sure to get me the best available. His years of experience have instilled in him an expert opinion so he is confident where to look and where to cut. With his tatted arms, he will wrap the cut while effortlessly holding a conversation about how to best prepare it. He tailors the main dish to perfectly accompany what it might be served with. While he’s at it, we may talk about the rare beer he discovered over the weekend or how the Crimson Tide did or whatever other interests we may share.  Maybe an algorithm could account for all of this, though I can’t imagine why an algorithm would be interested in playing an inconvenient word game with me. In fact, I can’t think of why I would be interested either. I have to trust that there was a good reason that a younger me always went out of his way to go to a good grocery store.  Whatever reason that was, I am positive that it had little to do with convenience.

Let me explain, and in the process I will perhaps convince you why I’m qualified to write about the subject.

When I was a teenager I spent a lot of time walking and, somehow, I always wound up at the grocery store. Decidedly not the Safeway closest to my home but instead Wizer’s, a local establishment. Its aisles were bathed in glossy fluorescent lighting that shone off of laminate from white floors and beige walls. Intentional or not, the cold light’s reflection gave everything a gold hue. This imbued Wizer’s with a certain regality, which was further accentuated by uninterrupted movements of classical music over an intercom. The store’s self-seriousness gave everything inside of it a certain dignity, from its employees to its products. There was a feeling to it, somehow it always felt like autumn. Mr. Wizer, or “Old Man Wizer” as we called him, achieved the impossible: he proved that fluorescent light can convey lavish majesty so long as its accompanied with the right soundtrack and products. He did this all while donning gold and brown, a combination no marketing team would approve of, grocery store or otherwise.

Wizer’s wasn’t like Safeway where everything was obnoxiously bright. Where each product was decorated with the same palette of neon colors complete with an unnatural sheen and fake grins from creepy children on flimsy cardboard boxes. Wizer’s was proper and dignified and it didn’t pander. There was no infantilizing there and maybe that authenticity is what attracted me to it as a young person. I would spend hours just looking at all the cool, not so neon, products they had. These products were usually foreign, from Britain, Germany, Greece, Japan and Spain. Spanish packaging was the best, and I would look at Ortiz cans of tuna, with its deep blues and reds and yellows, and imagine the sea that influenced their design.  It came from somewhere, the inspirational beauty of the Mediterranean was right on the package! The packaging told a story and with each product I would imagine what life must be like in those parts of the world – where they ate rice wrapped in grape leaves and chocolate was decorated for royalty. As a child longing for escape, the Wizer’s aisles were my window into the world outside.

Visiting the grocery store wasn’t just a phase. When I finally did get to see the world outside, I was still hungry for yet further horizons. I kept searching and grocery stores remained my trusty vehicle. At 16, I learend to drive and soon discovered Uwajimaya, a Japanese supermarket the next town over. Compelled by steamed buns, exotic produce (lychees and spiky melons that hurt to touch) and an unimaginable variance of soft drinks (Melon Soda! Mysteriously shaped soda bottles -with marbles inside!?) I’d spend hours exploring the superstore’s aisles. It felt like I was learning something, exactly what I didn’t know, but the bubbly feeling brought on by travel and discovery welled up in me in those aisles, even though I was less than 10 miles away from home.

In college, I traveled to Ireland where I could not contain my fascination with Tesco and the open-air markets. Not because they were grocery stores but because they were Irish grocery stores. Why were Spanish olives so much better in Ireland than the US? How come their sausage and butter is so much better than ours? In the small Oregon town I that I lived in while I studied, I always found time to walk and, just like when I was younger, I’d fit in a grocery store on my journey — sometimes two! And again, they were decidedly not the more conveniently located Safeway or Albertson’s, but instead the beautifully situated Harvest Fresh co-op and the independent Roth’s grocery.

After college, I got lucky. I spent my early and mid-twenties working numerous jobs in most every industry. As an intern at a think tank, a barista at a coffee shop, and a freelance web developer, among other things, but ultimately I found meaning in Portland, Oregon at New Seasons Market. Back then, everyone wanted to work at New Seasons and the competition was stiff, it really was a lucky break. I worked there, happily, for two years. I learned a lot about the business and made some close friends.  On the job I learned about cheese, wine, produce, meat, fish and of course, people. With the knowledge I garnered from each department I discovered more about the community and our place in it. As my knowledge for local products deepened, so did my love for the place they came from, my home.  At New Seasons we were proud of our respective departments because we loved our products and had a personal connection to their sources. The cheese monger was the cheese monger because she loved cheese- plain and simple. She loved taking care of it and sharing it with customers. The beer and wine managers loved beer and wine but more than tasting notes and industry events they knew the poetry in each bottle. The produce experts didn’t just know what fruits and vegetables were in season, they had relationships with farmers and vendors who brought them in that morning. Each department had its experts and the experts taught customers and coworkers alike. Our collective passion was not just an expansive knowledge of a specialty item but a knowledge of how it came to be, where it came from, who made it and why. It was a craving for a story that we all share just by living together, as customers, sellers and producers, made richer still because the institution we worked for valued us for our knowledge and as a result there was profound dignity in our work. The respect bestowed on my coworkers and I at New Seasons was something which I have never seen in the many jobs that I have worked before or after and I cannot overstate its beauty. I am sure it exists in other industries, but regardless of where one finds it, it is rare, and certainly not a feature of the efficient future as proposed by automation.

Working at a thriving grocery store, I was able to observe the grocery experience in a much more intimate way, like a city planner does in Manhattan or other big cities around the world. These observations spurred the revelation that grocery stores are some of the last places in modern society where all walks of life interact. Theres something intimate about shopping with or for someone. When we do it together, grocery shopping is a kind of dance where we get to wonder, create, improvise and share. A grocery store becomes a touchstone in our conversations with others. Have you seen their seafood section? What are those crazy cakes like? Have you tried melon soda?  The New Seasons experience confirmed my deep love for the grocery store and the discovery of how it worked only further encouraged my fascination. This curiosity continues to expand because in Portland city proper there are many facets of this industry which beg to be fully explored.

So why do this? Why call it the future of grocery?

The grocery store is a sacred place for us because it is a place where we enter and get lost in collective wonder. Possibilities unfold before us and we attempt to seize them with nothing but our will and creativity. What causes someone to reach out for a bag of faro as opposed to quinoa? Dinner for the family, a date, other future plans? The grocery store is a church of collective possibility where thinking about food is a form of prayer. Thought about in this way, it’s obvious why niche supermarkets like Whole Foods grew so quickly. Successful businesses fill a need and places like Whole Foods satiate our curiosity, not just our bellies alone. If that was all there was to it, then there’d be no need for anything but Walmart, Safeway and their ilk.  This leads me to believe that there must be more to the experience than just scanning mass-produced goods at an automated teller.

So, what is the future of grocery? This blog seeks to find that out.