Frictionless Shopping

Frictionless. A state of mind we all dream of. Work where we don’t have to brush up against rugged discomfort- where everything goes our way. There are no bugs in the code. Spaces outside of the computer screen increasingly resemble the software engineer’s ideal work environment. It is no wonder the first of these appears as a black box, nestled at the base of another black box, in a nondescript part of town, where the buildings uses are mixed to brown. Save for company logos, it can be hard to establish a sense of direction. Even with my traveling companion and current Seattleite, Conor, it took us awhile to get our bearings. Luckily, in Seattle, there is always the river.

No courtesy clerks. No greeters and best of all, no cashiers: Amazon presents AmazonGo, where shopping is “frictionless”. Chapter 4 of Google’s eBook from the Think With Google website (March 2016) defines frictionless shopping in relation to purchases made from a smartphone app. Amazon’s presentation of the future brings shoppers inside the smartphone. Not exactly the stuff of dreams but instead a logical endpoint, the triumph of not filling a need but fulfilling needs we didn’t yet know we had. “Time and Space died yesterday. We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed!”—Amazon’s “frictionless” vision whole heartedly embraces the ramblings of the Futurist manifesto. The company has concocted a way to speed up the consuming ritual by cutting out the “friction”. “Friction” in the tech company’s lexicon of course means, people.

The only kind of person allowed in AmazonGo, the consumer, becomes a cog as their function is gradually more simplified, and like a cog in good working order, it too is “frictionless”. The human element smoothed out - the mouth reduced to merely eating and drinking and no longer talking (In an automated store, there is not even a manager to complain too). The body for consuming, no longer exploring, fearing, questioning, wondering, laughing, sharing. Amazon’s dim step toward the future has been secured with more to come.

Most people are aware of these weird implications. I made it a point to visit the AmazonGo store in Seattle for the same reason that anyone does, to satiate my curiosity. The draw is, a shopper can walk in, pick up a sandwich and walk out. Whatever they pick up will be automatically charged to the card in their pocket without said card ever having to leave their pocket. Does it really work?

I did have my sandwich, wrapped in plastic and then cardboard and then more plastic, and a plastic bottle of water too- its just as they say.

The most common word used to describe the store in my conversations with other curious is “creepy”, and if I were to sum up my personal experience with the store it would be “novel”. Every shopper came for the same reason, to gawk at the absurdity of it and share pics on social media. However, unlike Powell’s books or other one-of-a-kind sites where selfie takers frequent, Amazon and companies like it are hoping to make this kind of thing normal.

Blocks away, the antithesis to AmazonGo lies against a hill and has for decades. As we entered and then left Amazon’s machine with unimaginable smoothness we decided to stretch our legs a little and walk to Pike’s Place Market. Flowers were on display and we negotiated space through crowds of people flowing through the old market the way humans do when they come together, like water. The fish mongers throw fish and with each slippery heave and catch a group of children clap and yell with boisterous delight. To the side, a seasoned fish thrower coaches the new guy on their product from the Pacific Northwest. The place has a smell. The floor is lumpy at some points and slippery at others. My friend and I found a grocery store at the end of the building and closely inspected its beer selection. We took turns exclaiming our own takes on one of craft beer’s most incredible victories: the introduction of spruce tips to ale. We took a moment to celebrate the people who pioneered it and then proceeded the rest of our visit to pragmatically assess the merits of the spruce infused ales available and breweries responsible for them. All of this had the effect of postponing our trip to the cash register. “Friction” if you want to call it that.

At the counter, I was so impressed by the size of a grinder sandwich that I commented on it to the guy next to me. He said he’d seen bigger in Vancouver BC and I made it a point to remember that. The lady behind the counter liked my shirt. We saw an artist that Conor worked with and, as artists do, managed to have a philosophical conversation on the nature of life. Conor had been working a new gig since he last saw his artist friend and past business partner, that was where the artist found his opening. At the time the viaduct was being torn down along the river and not far from the artist’s stand we stood and watched it for awhile. It will take years apparently. I told Conor about the worst hangover I ever had (absinthe fermented under a bunk in a UW dorm).

Needless to say, theres more going on in Pike’s than eating and drinking. AmazonGo and Pike’s Market can both exist on the streets of our cities, and to be sure, in some instances, Amazon’s feed bag makes more sense than Pike’s Marketplace, but the question I want to pose is, what do we actually want? Why does tech get away with calling human interaction “friction”? That same day, the story broke that Microsoft will be teaming up with Albertson’s to provide a “frictionless” shopping experience. Online shopping shows exponential growth. Make no mistake, people do seem to want convenience, but what if we’re sleep walking into it?

The jaded view Pike’s Place as something akin to Amazon’s perfected consumer ritual and write it off as simply touristy stuff, yet another form of consumerism. Another form of consumerism it may be, but I challenge the skeptic to not feel something more than eating and drinking when a fish monger heaves a slippery fish to another and with each miraculous catch a group of school children roars with joy. The food and space of Pike’s Place has a narrative, a narrative of use. its uses are many and its frictions spurn yet more stories. People have found ways to pull narratives out of AmazonGo’s closest cousin, the convenience store, yet when you compare the two, the convenience store seems alien, it has more in common with the marketplace than the frictionless grocery store. The difference is, at AmazonGo there is no one to tell you to leave, but why would you stay?