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Amazon offers new ‘skip the checkout’ experience at Westmont food store

Customers who scan their way in with the company’s app get to load up and just leave as the company leverages its ability to monitor visitors and market to them.

A mass of cameras suspended from the ceiling keep track of what customers remove from the shelves in the new Amazon Fresh store in Westmont.
A mass of cameras suspended from the ceiling keep track of what customers remove from the shelves in the new Amazon Fresh store in Westmont.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Amazon, pushing deeper into the grocery business, opens the latest edition of its Fresh store Thursday in Westmont. With a design that lets customers skip a checkout line, the store is all about your convenience, the company’s tracking ability and its power to tap all parts of its retail megalopolis.

With an Amazon account linked to a credit card, you can “Just Walk Out” with your stuff, to use the name the company applies to the feature. It’s a fancier version of technology Amazon has employed at its other food stores which depend on specially equipped shopping carts to record purchases.

In Westmont, carts have no special role. Over shoppers’ heads is an electronic trellis of suspended cameras and sensors that document every purchase. Employees said the systems have been rigorously tested and it shouldn’t improperly ding you if you pick up an item and put it back.

Customers also can shop the old-fashioned way and visit the checkout line. The option would be required for anybody who doesn’t register the visit with an Amazon account. You enter the store either with a QR code obtained on the Amazon app or through a gate marked “traditional shopping.”

District Manager Martha Marinelli demonstrates the requirement to scan the phone app before exiting the new Amazon Fresh store in Westmont.
District Manager Martha Marinelli demonstrates the requirement to scan the phone app before exiting the new Amazon Fresh store in Westmont.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

“We’ve got low prices. We have a great selection. We have national brands. We have our own brands. We have fresh food. I think where we really play is convenience,” said Amazon spokeswoman Laura Hayes.

The store at 6188 S. Cass Ave. in Westmont is the first Amazon Fresh in the region with the Just Walk Out technology and the largest store with it in the country, Hayes said. At about 35,000 square feet, it’s smaller than the biggest Jewel or Mariano’s but large enough for a curated selection of all grocery categories.

It includes local products such as Oberweis milk and draws on private label items popular at Amazon’s Whole Foods chain.

Bill Bishop, co-founder of the Brick Meets Click consulting firm for the grocery industry, said Amazon is using its retail omnipresence and data collection to its advantage. “If they get that product selection perfectly right, you’ll never know what didn’t make it in there,” he said.

Another Fresh store with the upgraded no-checkout feature is due to open next week at 6939 Dempster St. in Morton Grove. The region previously had four Amazon Fresh stores, all in the suburbs. Hayes said other locations are planned in Naperville and North Riverside.

The new Amazon Fresh store in Westmont.
The new Amazon Fresh store in Westmont.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Lionel Triplett, manager at the Westmont location, said the store offers a “unique and different” experience compared with legacy grocers and that it will assist shoppers new to the concept. The store will be a hub for orders that get delivered directly to homes in the western suburbs. Grocery deliveries are free with an Amazon Prime membership, as employees are happy to point out.

Each Fresh location has several hundred employees, but Amazon executives declined to give an exact number.

The no-checkout option, Triplett said, allows workers to be assigned to other functions, such as keeping the aisles well-stocked and tidy.

Knowing that your every move is being watched could make some people nervous. But executives said people will appreciate the savings in time and aggravation.

“I think when you see how easy it is — you scan in and walk out, you don’t have to wait in any line and yet we have employees everywhere to help you with anything. So hopefully, they find it to be a much easier and more enjoyable experience,” said Martha Marinelli, the district manager.

Plus, the cross-marketing opportunities are enormous. In one section of the store is a full-service station for any other Amazon need, including shipping, pickups and returns. A shelf offers a selection of highly rated non-grocery goods from Amazon’s infinite catalog, in case you want a mixer on your way out the door.

The store has Alexa stations for asking what wine goes with your dinner or which aisle has the toothpaste. Prices on the shelves are digital using e-ink technology Amazon lifted from its Kindle.

Price labels can be changed digitally because of Amazon’s e-ink technology.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Bishop said Amazon’s improved no-checkout system “is a very big competitive advantage.” He is a critic of the earlier version that relies on what the company calls Dash Carts, saying they have limited capacity and often malfunction.

“I think they want to be really big in grocery,” he said.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said data about shoppers’ behavior was anonymized. That information from Amazon was incorrect.