Amazon may have to put the brakes on the aggressive rollout of its automated Amazon Go stores, as more local governments are proposing bans on cashless brick-and-mortar retail operations. San Francisco is considering such a ban, following recent similar moves by other cities and states.
San Francisco’s cashless ban was first proposed back in February, but at that time did not include Amazon Go, because the stores don’t have employees handling cash. This week, however, San Francisco District Five Supervisor Vallie Brown expanded the proposed ban to include Amazon, which operates three Go locations in the city. The proposal comes on the heels of New Jersey’s cashless retail ban earlier this week, and Philadelphia’s earlier this month. New York City is considering such a ban as well.
Amazon Go locations are small, bodega-sized stores that have no cashiers. You scan the Amazon Prime app on your phone as you enter the store and high-tech sensors and cameras keep track of everything you take, automatically charging your credit card as you leave.
As my colleague, Jenn Marston has written, “Those who are against cashless businesses argue that restaurants and stores only accepting those payment forms exclude poorer communities and those for whom credit cards might not be an option.” Stores that have implemented cashless operations say they are safer (nothing to rob) and more accurate bookkeeping.
Amazon, however, is probably less concerned with safety and accuracy in its Go stores than it is with shopping efficiency (FWIW, we recognize the societal implications of cashless retail, and we loved shopping at Go). Amazon is all about removing friction from the retail experience, so you buy more stuff from them.
Amazon’s cashless troubles are compounded by the fact that the company is facing a broader backlash after its much-maligned second HQ search, and has become one of the targets of a larger anti-tech sentiment, with presidential candidates calling for its breakup.
This anti-Amazon sentiment gives the company less leverage in any fights it wants to pick with cities to keep the Go train rolling. Amazon had reportedly threatened to pull out of its Philadelphia location over accepting cash, which didn’t stop the city from enacting the ban anyway.
So what will Amazon do if more cities decide to ban cashless retail? The company can’t pull out of every city, and dense urban environments are where Go stores work best. But it’s hard to imagine the company going back and curtailing its AI and computer vision work it’s put into Go as it really is a great retail experience, and there’s too much data to be had watching us shop.
Amazon is laying some groundwork for Go experiences outside of cities. The company is looking at shrinking the already small Go stores to fit inside office buildings. Going more private like that could help it sidestep anti-cashless regulation.
But if the anti-cashless trend catches on, how long before Amazon Go is gone?