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For the past year, Amazon employees have been test driving Amazon Go, an experimental convenience store in downtown Seattle. The idea is to let consumers walk in, pick up items and then pay for them without ever standing in line at a cashier.

Amazon is vague on the mechanics, but the store relies on a mobile app and some of the same sensing technology that powers self-driving cars to figure out who is buying what.

Employees have tried to fool the technology. One day, three enterprising Amazonians donned bright yellow Pikachu costumes and cruised around grabbing sandwiches, drinks and snacks. The algorithms nailed it, according to a person familiar with the situation, correctly identifying the employees and charging their Amazon accounts, even though they were obscured behind yellow polyester.

Amazon Go represents Amazon.com Inc.'s most ambitious effort yet to transform the physical shopping experience by eliminating the checkout line, saving customers time and furthering the company's reputation for convenience. The push into groceries is a way for the company to get consumers to shop at Amazon more often. The e-commerce giant unveiled Amazon Go in December, saying it planned to open the store to the public earlier this year. However, the company encountered technical difficulties and postponed the debut to work out the bugs, The Wall Street Journal reported in March.

Seven months later, challenges remain, but the "just walk out" technology has improved markedly, says the person, who requested anonymity to speak freely about the project. And in a sign that the concept is almost ready for prime time, hiring for the Amazon Go team has shifted from the engineers and research scientists needed to perfect the platform to the construction managers and marketers who would build and promote the stores to consumers.

Shoppers visiting an Amazon Go store will scan their smartphones upon entering. Cameras and shelf sensors will then work together to figure out which items have been removed and who removed them, the person says; there will be no need for tracking devices, such as radio frequency chips, embedded in the merchandise. When shoppers leave, algorithms will total the order and bill their Amazon account.

The system is working well for individual shoppers but still struggles to accurately charge people who are moving around in groups, such as families with grabby kids, the person says. Go engineers have been studying families shopping together and are tweaking their sensors to recognize when a child eats an item while wandering around the store. Engineers are also figuring out which person to charge when a couple goes shopping together. Amazon has encouraged employees to enter the store in pairs and buy lunch.

The company is conducting further tests and focus groups from an undisclosed building in Seattle, the person said. The focus groups are used to design protocols for in-store returns, spoiled or damaged merchandise and customer service problems that are common to storefront retail.

It's unclear how quickly Amazon Go will develop. The company has moved deliberately with its book stores, opening just 13 in seven states since launching the first one in Seattle two years ago.

Analysts expect a version of Amazon Go technology to be rolled out eventually at Whole Foods Market, the upscale grocery chain Amazon acquired in September for $13.7 billion. That's a far more challenging prospect because Whole Foods locations are much larger than the 1,800-square-foot convenience store and carry thousands more products. Amazon, which says it currently has no such plans, would need a lot more testers wearing Pikachu costumes to pull that off.

SundayMonday Business on 11/19/2017

Print Headline: Pilot store relies on mobile app, tech

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