Amazon is installing its automated checkout technology inside an under-construction Amazon Fresh location in Ballard, permitting documents and ongoing renovations visible from the sidewalk suggest.
The Ballard store could be the largest cashierless Amazon location yet, as well as the first full-size Amazon Fresh store with what the company calls its “Just Walk Out” tech. In the U.S., Amazon Fresh is the company’s line of midpriced markets, aimed at competing with grocery giants like Safeway and Kroger, which owns QFC.
Permits submitted last year for renovations to the former Ballard New Seasons Market at 951 N.W. Ballard Way describe ceiling-mounted racks designed to hold a vast array of cameras. The documents also describe enlarging the site’s existing computer server room. And a row of automated sliding gates at the store entrance is visible through several small holes in the paint covering the windows.
Those features are similar to the infrastructure installed in Amazon’s nearly 30 smaller Amazon Go stores worldwide.
Amazon declined to respond to questions. The contractor, Abbott Construction, did not immediately respond to questions. The architect, BRR, referred questions to its client on the project — whose name it did not disclose.
However, an envelope left leaning against the window of the Ballard grocery store is addressed to Amazon Fresh at that location.
And an electrical permit filed last summer suggests the grocery store is envisioned as an Amazon Fresh. That permit referred to the site as “Amazon MAC8,” a naming convention in line with how Amazon refers to other Fresh stores. Amazon operates 11 Fresh stores, with plans to open nearly 30 more, Bloomberg reported last month.
Amazon unveiled its cashierless technology to the public in 2018, at a pocket-size Amazon Go convenience store on the ground floor of a building in its South Lake Union campus.
Customers enter the store by swiping their credit card or an Amazon app at the automated gates. Sensors in shelves detect when customers have removed items and a huge network of cameras keeps track of what’s in customers’ carts or baskets. When they’re ready to leave, customers don’t stop at a cashier to pay: They just walk out. Software sends them a digital bill for what they’ve removed from the store.
When the company began designing the concept behind Amazon Go, its engineers envisioned using the technology in large, big-box grocery stores. But technical hurdles have kept Go stores relatively small — so far.
The first Amazon Go store was a tiny 1,800 square feet; today, the Seattle area’s largest — in Overlake — is 18,000 square feet.
At 25,000 square feet, the Ballard location would trump them all. Similar permitting plans filed for a store in Connecticut suggest Amazon is building an even larger automated grocery store there, on a 34,000-square-foot site.
Amazon has said its cashierless technology is aimed at enhancing the customer experience, not slashing grocery jobs. And it’s had big hiring campaigns at its two other soon-to-open Amazon Fresh locations around the area, in Bellevue’s Factoria mall and at Seattle’s 23rd Avenue and Jackson Street.
Still, the expansion of the cashierless technology will likely mean Amazon — which has big ambitions to upend the grocery sector — doesn’t need to hire as many employees at locations where the devices are used. Other grocers, too, could cut labor costs by purchasing the technology from Amazon, which began marketing it to third-party retailers last year. Airport convenience store Hudson began installing the cashierless tech at some locations in January.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.