Like most people who work in publishing, I am not an Amazon fan.
I understand the lure of inexpensive books. But that low cost comes at a high price. Amazon sells books close to or below cost in order to attract buyers, collect data on them—the real prize—and then sell them everything else. Publishers get squeezed and independent bookstores struggle as Amazon continues its path toward world domination.
And now it will open grocery stores. Apoplectic describes me best right now.
No lines, no cashiers…and no jobs
The big selling point of Amazon Go? No waiting at the checkout. The stores will have no cashiers. You just download the Amazon Go app onto your phone, check in to the store through a subway station-esque turn style, cruise the aisles, place your items into your bag and walk out. The app can detect what you’ve removed from the shelves and it charges your Amazon account accordingly.
Although Amazon hasn’t revealed which food companies it will work with, judging from the video, the store looks an awful lot like a convenience store filled with processed food and food-to-go, all overpackaged in plastic containers. Without staff to weigh or measure out products—human beings that shoppers would actually have to interact with!—everything would need to be premeasured, prepackaged and prepriced. The store will also carry obscenely overpackaged meal kits, with each ingredient measured out and wrapped separately, for those who want to assemble their meals themselves, kind of like edible LEGO for grownups that leaves behind piles of trash.
There appears to be one employee in the video—the guy making the sandwiches. This new grocery store model has created at least one job.
If Trump wants to blame a region for decimating American jobs, he should look to Silicon Valley (and in this case, Seattle), not China.
Margaret Atwood novels serve as warnings, not business plans
This store looks to me like the setting for a scene from a dystopian novel. Only the few, the young, the hip and the tech-savvy have survived some kind of unnamed apocalypse. Too busy to feed themselves, they shop for food-like substances and meal replacements in sterile stores devoid of (typically) low-wage workers. Those undesirables have been banished to live by their wits outside the highly desired and heavily guarded compound, with its manicured grounds and enhanced life-support systems of purified air and water.
Amazon Go will target techie types—people too busy working at startups to take time to eat. The first store opens in Seattle early in 2017 but would do well here in Silicon Valley. Tech workers unfortunate enough to toil at startups that lack free food would flock to an Amazon Go. Food is just an inconvenient and undesirable reality of life, like death and taxes. Elon Musk wishes he didn’t have to waste time eating, for example. Tech workers can’t be expected to wait in a line. They have apps to develop!
But truly, Amazon could offer many more conveniences other than merely its “Just Walk Out Technology.”
For those too busy to stand in line but in need of calories, Amazon Go stores could install Soylent dispensers outside the store. (A group of San Francisco engineers concocted Soylent, a powdered meal replacement, and adopted the company name—without irony—from the 1973 sci-fi movie Soylent Green.)
No need to enter the store! Just direct your self-driving car to drop you off at the curb, rustle up to the dispenser, wrap your lips around the nozzle which, detecting your 98.6 degree temperature and analyzing your saliva as human, shoots a serving of Soylent into your mouth and charges your Amazon account $4.99 (for a limited time, get 20 percent off a second helping!). The plastic nozzle drops off into the trash and a new one appears to prevent the spread of cooties. You get back to the office and the job you still hold—at least until it’s automated.
You know what else has long lines? Toilets. Adult diapers could solve that productivity problem and Amazon Go should feature large displays of these. People working 12-hour days generally consume vats of caffeine to sustain them, which sends them to the bathroom several times every single day. Four trips can easily add up to a half hour wasted for a bro, not including time spent waiting in line, where someone might brazenly attempt to strike up a conversation. Women of course, waste even more time in the bathroom, but then again, tech companies, with their gender gap, have few lines outside the women’s room.
A Utopian grocery store
Amazon Go depresses me. To cheer myself up, I started to think about what my dream grocery store would look like. Note the word dream. I would need to be independently wealthy to pull this off.
A LEED Platinum building
I will opt for a straw-bale building for my store, with passive heating and cooling, a gray water system, a green roof outfitted with beehives, and an interior fashioned from reclaimed materials. The floors, shelves and checkout stands (yes my store would hire real, live, human cashiers) would be crafted from the wood of old barns. Solar and wind will power the store. LED lights will light it up.
I’ll have many bike racks out front of the store. Around 20 percent of the porous interlocking brick parking lot will be dedicated to carpooling and electric cars. You can park your bike for free but I’ll charge all cars a nominal fee to park. I’ll have a real, live parking attendant to manage the lot and fees. Parking fees will help cover that employee’s wages.
As I’ve mentioned, my store would require employees to run it. The store will be worker owned, with everyone not only earning a living wage but also owning a piece of the business (after they have worked for a certain period of time and proven themselves an asset to the company). I’d also hire and train at-risk youth. They’ll learn about baking, cooking, marketing or the basics of running a small business. Not everyone in this world will get a degree in computer science (or wants one).
Packaging or lack thereof
The store won’t carry processed or frozen food. It will not feature that middle section in pretty much every grocery store in America (that includes you Whole Foods)—the one with all the dead, overpackaged and unhealthy products that resemble food.
Forgot your jars and cloth bags for produce and bulk bins? I won’t have disposable ones in the store. For a deposit, you can use the store’s jars and reusable cloth produce and bulk bags. Return them for cash. There, I just created another job for someone as dish washer, launderer, and bag sewer and mender.
I buy almost all my produce at the farmer’s market. You can’t beat the flavor and you support the farmers directly. In my parking lot one morning a week, I’ll rent out stalls to farmers for a small farmer’s market. I’ll also do some of the store’s produce buying that day.
Inside the store, I’ll sell more fruits and vegetables than anything else. Like all the food in the store, the produce will be organic and as local as possible.
For staples, I’ll have bulk bins, inspired by my favorite store, Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco. Some of what I’ll sell in bulk:
- Beans and legumes of all kinds. Pinto beans, black beans, navy beans, mung beans, Borlotti beans, butter beans, lentils, mung dal.
- Rice and grains of all kinds. Basmati white or brown, wild rice, sushi rice, farro, various kinds of wheat berries, oats, steel-cut oats.
- Pasta in different shapes and varieties. Semolina, corn, gluten-free, whole wheat, with eggs, without eggs.
- Nuts and seeds of all kinds, for munching on (cashews, tamari almonds, pistachios, sunflower seeds), for baking and for cooking (pecans, walnuts, hemp seeds). I’ll also have a nut grinder nearby for making fresh nut butters.
- Flours like whole wheat, bread, rice, gluten-free, rye, buckwheat, teff, coconut flour, you name it.
- Sugars like brown, coconut, sucanat, maple, granulated.
- Baking goodies like sugar of all kinds, shredded and flaked coconut, dry yeast, chocolate chips, wafers and cubes in different sizes (I refuse to give up chocolate), even cacao nibs.
- Tea and coffee. Earl Grey, puerh, oolong, green, herbal varieties. I’ll have a coffee grinder on the premises.
- Spices and herbs of all kinds.
- Salts, baking soda, nutritional yeast, dried bullion, seaweed…you get the picture.
- Olive oil in several varieties
- Vinegar in several varieties
- Homemade hummus
- Homemade pesto
- Homemade tofu
- Maple syrup
- Homemade miso paste (I need to figure out how to make this…)
- Homemade dill pickles
- Homemade sauerkraut and kimchi
Wine and kombucha on tap
I’ll have a few varieties to choose from. Bring in your bottle to refill or pay a deposit for one.
Dairy and eggs
I’ll carry eggs, dairy and cheese—all pastured—but no meat or fish.
A bakery and café
To prevent food waste, the menu will change depending on what produce we need to use up. Most grocery stores toss piles of food. Mine won’t. Since I don’t actually have to produce an income statement for this post, I’ll make this bakery and café pay-what-you-feel. At the end of the day, any leftover food will go to a food bank or shelter.
We’ll serve our food and drinks on real plates, with real cutlery, real glasses and mugs and cloth napkins. If you would like your food to go and forgot your reusable mug or container, you can pay a deposit to take one home from the store.
Classes and events
I love teaching people how to cook. It’s such an important skill. My store would offer classes like knife skills, fermentation (sauerkraut, kimchi, dill pickles, kombucha, ginger beer), sourdough bread baking and vegetarian and zero-waste cooking. I’d also host guest speakers and would charge pay-what-you-feel admission. I wonder what Michael Pollan’s schedule looks like 😉
Efficiency can’t be our only metric
I imagine I would be laughed out of a VC’s office if I pitched this shop. My grocery store will cost a fortune to build. Zero-waste shopping, while growing in popularity, has yet to go mainstream. I haven’t presented the most efficient grocery store model. But when you come down to it, being alive isn’t very efficient. Let’s have some humanity in our businesses too.