As of August 10, Downtown Spirits isn’t like all the other liquor stores downtown, in Seattle, or in the world. According to owner Marques Warren, it’s the first speciality liquor store ever to use Amazon’s Just Walk Out technology. Still something of a a novelty, this is the tech that allows Amazon Go stores to charge shoppers for what they pick off of shelves without having to go to a cashier.
Proponents of this technology see it as streamlining the shopping experience. There’s no line for the cash register, no fumbling with bar codes on a self-service scanner. You just boop your phone on the way in, take whatever you want, and boop your phone on the way out. The app knows what you took, and will charge you accordingly. An Amazon spokesperson says that there’s no use of biometric information; instead the tech “uses a combination of sophisticated technologies like computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning to distinguish shoppers from one another, link a customer to their method of payment, and determine ‘who took what’ during a single store visit.”
Warren tells Eater Seattle that there’s another benefit that’s a little more specific to a downtown liquor store. Customers have to download an app and enter in their personal information and a credit card before they can get past the turnstile at the store entrance, which makes it much, much harder for shoplifters to get in.
“The old store was a traditional brick and mortar store — anyone could walk in, shoplifting occurred,” Warren says. Adding this layer of security frees up staff from having to worry about potential shoplifters, and it even lets the store experiment with new layouts. “Because we no longer have to look over shelves and keep a strict watch on everyone shopping throughout the store, we’re able to build shelves higher and closer together,” Warren says. “We are able to squeeze more into smaller space.”
Eater Seattle showed up a day after the grand opening of this new Downtown Spirits to do some incognito shopping. Downloading the app and filling in all the required information took a few minutes — we were helped out by a front desk employee — and you have to pay a membership fee, which starts at $3 a month (Downtown Spirits says this will pay for itself through discounts once you buy a few bottles).
But once we were inside the store, it was an unusually relaxed shopping experience. Nothing was behind glass, not even the expensive brands, and they have a great selection. To test out the technology, we walked out with a small bottle of Perrier and a packet of churro-flavored Kit-Kats (would recommend), and our credit card was charged appropriately.
Just Walk Out technology, which allows the app to track who bought what, isn’t without controversy — earlier this year, customers in New York sued Amazon for allegedly violating a city law requiring stores to explicitly tell customers if their biometric information is being tracked.
The upside, though, at least for Downtown Spirits, is that it changes what kind of store it can be.
“Quite honestly, if you walk into any of our local drugstores that sell alcohol, it’s really not a pleasant experience,” Warren says. “We’re trying to focus on the customer experience, rather than having alcohol locked up behind the cash register. That’s what you get when you don’t have the technology that we’re implementing.”
Correction, August 15, 2023: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Just Walk Out as using facial recognition technology, which Amazon says it does not do. Eater Seattle regrets the error.