(BLOOMBERG) - Amazon.com is poised to bring its automated checkout technology to full-size supermarkets in the United States, a significant milestone in the race to revolutionise how people buy their groceries.
Planning documents for a store under construction in Brookfield, Connecticut, contain all the hallmarks of an Amazon Fresh grocery store: a two-word logo on dark grey panels above the store's entrance, online order pickup counter and such full-service departments as a butcher.
The plans also identify a dozen entry and exit gates as well as ceiling-mounted racks to run wiring to camera arrays, a set-up that until now has appeared in Amazon Go convenience stores only.
Shoppers enter those locations by swiping a smartphone at the entry gate. Inside, they are tracked by cameras, software algorithms and shelf sensors - then charged for what they take when exiting through the designated gates.
Amazon appears to have solved a significant technical challenge, creating a grab-and-go system that can handle scores of shoppers at once and cover large supermarkets without being prohibitively expensive to build and operate.
The breakthrough, if it works, would catapult Amazon ahead of its competitors, which are testing similar camera-based technology developed by various start-ups. Executives at these companies have acknowledged that they are perhaps a year or two away from installing cashierless systems in full-sized supermarkets.
Widespread adoption of automated checkouts will likely fuel critiques from labour unions that have accused Amazon of seeking to eliminate cashiers.
The company has said the goal of its Just Walk Out programme is shopper convenience, not cutting labour costs. It added that it has created thousands of grocery jobs since the launch of the first Fresh store last year.
Since launching the Fresh chain in southern California, Amazon has opened 12 stores, with 37 more in development across the country, as well as developed the Dash smart cart, whose sensors and cameras add up purchases as shoppers cruise the aisles.
The carts stop short of a seamless experience - they hold only a couple of bags of food, and shoppers cannot take them outside, forcing them to transfer bags to a low-tech cart or lug their food to the carpark.
Tracking dozens of people across a big store is technically challenging, but cost has also slowed the adoption of cashierless technology. Equipping a convenience store of 2,000 sq ft or so with cameras can be done with a few dozen devices.
Covering much larger, full-service supermarkets - which in the US tend to range from 30,000 sq ft to 50,000 sq ft or more - can require exponentially more cameras and servers to process and store video. That can quickly chew through the benefits of employing fewer cashiers or luring more people into the store with the promise of a seamless checkout.
Amazon has been working for years to streamline its Just Walk Out system, making the gear more cost effective for its own stores as well as appeal to other companies that might license the technology. And even when Amazon was exclusively opening small convenience stores, the company's engineers were asked to build a version of the technology that would be viable in larger stores of 30,000 sq ft or more.
Last year, the company also introduced Amazon One, which lets shoppers use their palms to pay at its convenience, book and 4-Star stores in the Seattle area. Amazon said thousands of customers had signed up and that it had introduced the service to a Whole Foods Market store in the city and planned to roll it out in other locations.