In the 1980s, David Humble was at the grocery checkout counter when something unusual happened: A customer became frustrated with a cashier’s slow pace, so he simply scanned one of his purchases himself.
That incident inspired Humble to develop a prototype for a self-checkout system. He combined a personal computer, an industrial computer and a video screen. The result was one of the country’s first self-checkout machines.
He created a company, Checkrobot Inc., and introduced the machines to several grocery chains. His first customer was an Atlanta-area supermarket. (Howard Schneider would also introduce a self-checkout machine, calling them “service robots,” in a New York supermarket in 1992, according to The Independent.)
Humble’s machine was simple and easy to use: Shoppers could essentially become their own cashiers. In fact, an 11-year-old demonstrated the machine at the annual convention of the Food Marketing Institute in 1987.
The technology was hailed as “a giant leap forward.” Humble thought he had a winner on his hands.
“This is a revolutionary product that will start in the supermarket and go into other areas, such as department stores and discount drug stores; it will sweep all of retail,” Humble told the L.A. Times after the convention.
But the idea didn’t catch on. For one, the machines were not cheap: They were about twice as expensive as regular checkout machines at the time.
Secondly, his early machines did not allow payments: Customers still had to visit a central cashier to pay for their purchases.
In the end, a European firm eventually bought his company. Self-serve checkout was more common there at the time.
“I thought it would have taken off faster than it did,” Humble told the Baltimore Sun in 2003.
“Unexpected Item in the Bagging Area”
The actual technology for self-checkout lines hasn’t changed much since its introduction, NPR reported in 2016. And they are still susceptible to problems, such as theft.
In an effort to tackle the issue, cameras can help aid the checkout process. They can tell when a customer says “they’re buying onions but are actually buying avocados,” NPR’s Nick Fountain reported.
In addition, stores can audit the checkout counters. But, more presciently, NCR’s Dusty Lutz mentioned a different type of technology to Fountain that, in a sense, predicted Amazon’s cashier-less Amazon Go stores.
“There is a bolder idea that Lutz is working on — a store with a bunch of cameras that knows when you take an item off the shelf and charges you for it,” Fountain reported in 2016.
Years later, Amazon did just as Lutz had imagined by introducing a cashier-less store to the world. The venture opened in January at its headquarters in Seattle, Washington.
Recode reported that upon entering the Amazon Go store, customers can choose from premade salads, sandwiches, snacks and meals, as wells as beer, wine and other beverages. Shelves are also stocked with produce, meat and Amazon meal kits.
While Amazon Go doesn’t need cashiers, there are employees who perform such tasks as checking IDs for alcohol purchases and preparing food in the store’s kitchen.
In order to shop in the store, customers must first download the Amazon Go app on their mobile device and scan the app upon entering. Customers can then proceed to shop, but they don’t have to check out when exiting.
Why? The store uses cameras and sensors on shelves, as well as a computer vision system, to scan the items being purchased and automatically charge them to the shopper’s Amazon account.
The concept appears to be well-received by customers: Two months after opening its doors to the public, Amazon looked closely at the metrics and found that store associates were spending the vast majority of their time restocking shelves.
Where the brand will expand the format next is unknown — as are what the plans for expansion will even look like. Amazon stated that Whole Foods is not slated for any addition of the grab-and-go tech that animates the Amazon Go shopping experience.
Yet Amazon confirmed that it’s working to update the technology that powers the platform. Will Amazon bring the technology to Amazon Books or other retailers? Only time will tell.