retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Based on the breathless coverage that appeared Monday on MNB and elsewhere about Amazon Go, you’d think it sounds like the greatest thing since sliced bread.

We constantly write here about incredible innovations from Amazon, though we do try to leaven the commentary with perspective. Not every innovation is a game changer and, to be fair, sometimes we get it wrong. (Like when the Content Guy predicted that the while notion of drone deliveries was just a corporate head fake, and wouldn't amount to much.)

Amazon Go, however, could be the real thing, offering a checkout-free shopping trip and creating an huge game changer for retailing.

Let's be clear, though. Amazon Go is a really big idea, but it isn't a new idea.

I know this, because almost 20 years ago I had the good fortune to be in a meeting with Mike Wright, then the CEO of Supervalu, at a time when both the man and his company were giants in the industry. And Mike Wright had a big idea.

I don't remember every word of the meeting, but Wright's big idea has stayed with me. He pointed out that the industry’s biggest problem was the single worst part of the shopping experience: the checkout. His vision was simple: using emerging technologies (this was the 1990s!), shoppers’ orders would scan simply by passing through some type of monitor or archway. No more unloading items onto the conveyor belt, watching them get scanned and bagged. Payments would be handled automatically as well.

What’s more, he envisioned that shopping carts would have a removable basket that would go right into the shopper’s car and then into the home. No more loading and unloading bags or lines at the checkout.

Just like that. the worst part of the shopping trip would disappear.

Mike Wright's vision led the industry to get heavily involved in the development of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, but we discovered a problem. While the technology continues to exist and work, the cost makes it prohibitive for supermarket items.

And so, the vision never was realized. Until now. Amazon is doing it, though it is relying on other new technologies, not RFID.

Until the first Amazon Go store is up and running for consumers, there is no way of knowing whether it will be able to realize the vision of a checkout-free store any more than Mike Wright was, or than IBM was (based on the ad that it ran years ago to predict such a system even before the technology existed).

But we need to remember that technology enables us to do all kinds of things today that we found unthinkable a few years back. And if Amazon’s idea works, it will offer, as Mike Wright said, a solution to the single most hated part of the shopping experience.

That's a game changer.

So please don’t dismiss this out of hand and as “just one more crazy idea from Amazon” because it really isn’t a crazy idea. And not even a new one. Maybe just one that's time finally has come.

There's a wonderful quote from "The West Wing" (in a script by Aaron Sorkin and Lawrence O'Donnell):

"There’s been a time in the evolution of everything that works when it didn’t work.”

And another, equally wonderful line, from "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (in a script by Hannah Louise Shearer):

“Things are only impossible until they are not.”

In other words, just because the completely passive checkout experience hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it won’t.

One other thing. Remember that Mike Wright was neither young nor new to the industry when he talked with me about this exact idea. Nor was he a techie of any kind. Rather he was a businessperson with a keen idea of what shoppers really do and don’t want.

That’s the kind of thinking that produces true innovation and game changers.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available on Amazon by clicking here. And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon by clicking here.
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