As I head to the LA suburbs—Woodland Hills to be exact—to test run the new Amazon Fresh supermarket concept, I’m admittedly a bit skeptical. How do you bring anything new to the idea of a big, wide room with a bunch of foodstuffs for sale? Well, in Amazon’s case, it’s transporting their trademark triple threat of convenience, competitive pricing and cutting-edge technology from the worldwide web and plugging it smack into a neighborhood, brick-and-mortar supermarket.
With a flexible schedule, I do the bulk of the shopping for my wife and myself. And I’m loyal to different stores for various items on my list: Trader Joe’s for frozen favorites, Whole Foods for fish, and Target and Walmart for well-priced pantry staples. As I pull into the Amazon Fresh parking lot, I have doubts about adding another retailer to the rotation.
A giant, can’t-miss banner declaring “Now Open” greets me. This is the first day of biz for the highly anticipated food store, and word has spread. I join the flurry of patrons pounding for the automatic doors, and …
Predictably, it’s a big, wide room with a bunch of foodstuffs. But, it’s also bright, inviting and buzzing with a youthful staff, many of whom are wiping down and sanitizing every surface in sight. Even with my face muzzled in a mask, I must look a little lost, because one of the friendly Fresh team members approaches me, asking if I want to take a Dash Cart for a spin.
The Dash Cart is a sturdy, slightly-more-tiny-than-a-typical-shopping cart equipped with an interactive screen and sensors that links to your grocery list and tracks purchases as you plop them in the cart. The clerk gives me the rundown, but there’s also a tutorial video that plays on the Dash Cart screen, whisking you through the process. I open the Amazon app on my phone, hold it above a mini scanner beside the screen, and my shopping list, which I had quickly clicked out before entering the store, pops up. Not only that, the location of each item is indicated as well.
So, you’re telling me Dash Cart is some sort of personal shopper/checkout clerk, which beeps and boasts light-up panels like a cute, little droid? I’m ready to roll …
The produce department is steps from the front door and matches the name on the marquee: FRESH. I grab a plump, healthy head of romaine that looks plucked from the Jurassic Age. Now, veggies are the one hitch to the Dash Cart scanning system, so I type a four-digit code into the interactive screen, and then place the lettuce in the waiting cart. In seconds, Dash Cart has calculated the item’s weight, and I’m back on the move.
I promptly come face-to-face with an “Ask Alexa” Kiosk—another handy tech feature of Amazon Fresh. Again, my shopping list is on Dash Cart, so I don’t need Alexa’s directions to those Great Northern Beans. However, she’s available to answer questions ranging from wine pairings, recipe ideas and more. Most of us probably turn to our smartphones for this info, but it’s a solid Plan B to digging into your back pocket or purse, and I spied three or four of the interactive stands posted throughout the store.
For a goof, I ask Alexa the coordinates of the meat counter—it’s only 20 feet away—and as I venture deeper into Amazon Fresh, the slightly narrow aisles and neatly stacked products give me vibes of urban, European markets. It feels different from your average, American grocery store—in a good way. As I stop to peruse some pasta labels, part of me expected to read nothing but Italian print. But there’s an impressive mix of dependable name brands, alongside a complement of new discoveries. And that competitive pricing is on full display. I snag a box of Jumbo Shells for $1.19.
After exploring two more aisles, and engaging in a brief back-and-forth with Dash Cart involving a package of thick-cut bacon (the Dash Cart’s scanners are somewhat sensitive, and thus require shoppers to carefully and deliberately add their desired purchases to the cart), I start to get a handle on this joint. Quality over quantity. Amazon Fresh could never meet the outrageous variety of its online mother store—Snorkels! Accordions! Capes for cats!—but there’s a truly impressive mix of products filling the floorspace.
The meat and seafood counter may only stretch for half the length of other stores, but the selections—pre-made turkey burger patties mingled with mozzarella and herbs, colossal crab legs—stand out. Same for the wine and beer. The section is modest, but stocked with tasty, tactful picks. And that thoughtful approach—well-curated over wallop 'em with everything—carries throughout the market.
One Thing I Loved: A particular standout is the Taste of America selections. These are local favorites and culinary heavy hitters from across the country, conveniently rounded up for Fresh’s curious shoppers. Boston Chowda Company Bisque?Wicked awesome. And the prepared foods? Everything from roasted cauliflower to banh mi sandwiches and pesto zoodles with shrimpmade me wish humans consumed seven meals a day.
One Thing I Wished Were Different: Some feng shui and flow in the food-to-go area. It’s to be expected on opening day, but customers were loitering near the counters, and it was unclear who was up next to place their order. No doubt this will be addressed in coming weeks if mumblings of “Are you in line?” continue.
One Thing That Was Just OK: Admittedly, I’m a bit picky about pizza, but the slice I was served was just OK. However, at $1.79 a slice, these pies should fly out the door like frisbees.
One Thing That Wowed: My new buddy Dash Cart. I’m a fan of getting in and out in a flash—decidedly so in these days of COVID—and Dash Cart helps this happen. Even if you’re picking up a bottle of pinot noir, you can still use the smart cart and access the designated Dash Cart Lane. An enthusiastic employee happily scans your ID once you enter the well-marked area, and you’re on your way. Dash Cart is not just a gimmick. This is the future.
I foresee Amazon Fresh roping in area Whole Foods (there’s one just up the street) and Trader Joe’s regulars. But I’m not sure if parents buying for a platoon-sized family or folks foraging their monthly pile of pandemic provisions will elect Amazon Fresh as their weekly go-to grocer. Shoppers who want 30 different brands of fruit punch will still frequent megastores the size of football fields. And to be honest, Fresh wasn’t an all-in-one-wonder for me either. I nixed buying charcoal for my grill when I saw the price of a small bag was dollars over other stores.
But, until Amazon builds a helmet where you simply say “pot pie,” and it’s promptly beamed into your fridge, this food shopping experience is pretty forward-thinking. If Amazon and company build one in my neck of the woods, it’ll crack my rotation.
Amazon Fresh incorporates some of my top hits from stores I already visit, offers fair pricing on most of my preferred products, and adds the closest thing to a Star Wars droid I’ve seen in any supermarket. But if that’s not your thing, you can still kick it old school, grab a classic cart and hit those aisles.
Jonathan Forest is an LA-based producer, director and writer.