Aisle 1 is the new Winsight Grocery Business column from Editor-in-Chief Heather Lalley.
Last July, about six weeks before I started this job as editor in chief of Winsight Grocery Business, I checked out the grand opening of the Amazon Fresh store just over the Chicago border, in Norridge, Illinois, about five minutes from my house.
It was a vibrant affair, with a balloon arch and prize giveaways and city officials onsite to shake hands and cut ribbons. Shoppers, many of whom had received store coupons in the mail, queued up hours before opening and flooded in, excited to try out the retailer’s frictionless Just Walk Out technology. The shelves of the 50,000-square-foot store were fully stocked, and the prepared-foods area seemed flush with just-made pizza, sushi and more.
At that time, Amazon had 34 Fresh stores and was opening a new supermarket about once a week. The retailer has opened 10 new supermarkets in the months since—but hasn’t opened a new store since September. In fact, a number of stores have been built but never opened, and now exterior signs are being removed on at least a half dozen locations around the country. Amazon CEO Andy Jassy admitted a couple of weeks ago that he wishes Amazon Fresh would find stronger footing and that the retail giant needs a more robust brick-and-mortar grocery presence to gain market share.
I’ve been back to the Amazon Fresh near my house a several times since the grand opening, including a visit Sunday around 1 p.m. with my 11-year-old. Since that first shopping trip on grand-opening day, the store has been getting quieter and quieter.
On Sunday, during peak grocery shopping hours, the parking lot was virtually empty.
We could’ve tap danced down most aisles, unnoticed. (Though my tween surely would’ve elbowed me in the ribs had I attempted that.)
We had two interactions with store employees: One greeted us at the gate where shoppers must scan an Amazon app-generated QR code to enter and handed us a sales circular. And, in the very deserted prepared foods department, we stood in front of the darkened case of sliced pizzas, waiting to get the attention of the lone worker so my daughter could get a slice.
Many shelves were bare. But we did discover probably the only place in Chicago where somebody could buy candy canes (organic!) in May.
Here’s the thing with Amazon Fresh, though: It’s a soulless shopping experience. It’s quiet. And sterile. And the thousands of cameras hanging overhead give it an off-putting, Big Brother vibe.
I love the convenience, to be sure. Being able to bag groceries as I’m shopping and not wait in a checkout line (or, worse, suffering through self-checkout) is great.
On the rare days I go to the office downtown, I enjoy a quick run through the Amazon Go location at the train station to pick up yogurt and berries and canned iced coffee for a perfectly serviceable desk breakfast. As a convenience-store format, Just Walk Out makes a lot of sense. Plus, the store’s small footprint makes it seem much more vibrant than the cavernous Amazon Fresh.
The case of Amazon Fresh is like a laboratory experiment in how much technology is too much. When a grocery store goes too far, it loses its heartbeat.
Some have dubbed the Amazon Fresh locations that are sitting unopened around the country “zombie” grocery stores. It’s an apt descriptor for the open Amazon Fresh locations, too, at least in their current incarnation.