Every January the National Retail Federation hosts its biggest event of the year in NYC, aptly called “The Big Show”. The Big Show is so big that most people simply refer to it as “NRF”. It’s an epic, once-a-year event for us, and last January was no different. 

Every year, my team spends countless hours of brain power, creative juice and chutzpah planning every detail of the event. But this year, I wanted to do more than just hang out at the Javits for 4 days, I wanted to experience the best retail NYC has to offer. In the weeks leading up to NRF, my team and I came up with a punch list of the best and most innovative retail stores in the retail capital of the world. Grand openings we’ve read about, clients who have experimented with some crazy cool innovations and prospects we’d love to add to our roster. 

Amazon Go was pretty high on our list, and frankly, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Amazon Go launched in 2017 in Seattle, and claimed to feature “the world’s most advanced shopping technology”. The YouTube video introducing the concept made it seem super cool, and the natural evolution of shopping. I expected to walk into the Amazon Go store and be magically transported to the future. The food would taste better, the people would be that kind of edgy-cool I’ve always admired, and I would never have to wait in line EVER AGAIN. All of a sudden, I would become one of those super-cool, innovative hipster-types I’ve always kind of wished I was (but definitely am not). 

The actual experience however, left me a little cold. The technology was well thought-out and flawless, as you’d expect from Amazon. Downloading the Amazon Go app was easy, and all of the data flowed from my normal Amazon app to my Amazon Go app seamlessly. A quick scan, and I was in the store, ready to purchase whatever my heart and stomach desired. But after being in there for a few minutes, it was almost creepy. 

There was a guy there monitoring the front door and another ensuring everything was fully stocked up, and the coffee counter was spotless, but that was all. As cool and modern as the experience was, it was a little too functional, almost cold. Like something out of Star Trek. We spent some time chatting with the front-of-store associate, and ironically enough he talked about how important it is to build a guest experience that keeps customers coming back over and over again. His concern is that people view Amazon Go as a bit of a novelty, but once that itch is scratched, customers consider that box checked and don’t feel a need to return. 

Last January, I came to the conclusion that Amazon Go was ahead of its time. I thought it would be a good 5-10 years before consumers would embrace the cold, touchless, people-less, almost introverted shopping experience. But then COVID-19 hit, and the world changed almost overnight. Restaurants and non-essential retail closed, grocery stores installed plexiglass shields, and everyone started wearing masks. 

Six months after my initial visit, my opinion has changed. Amazon Go’s touchless commerce isn’t ahead of its time, it’s on time. As we emerge out of this pandemic and try to figure out what “normal” will mean, traditional ideas of an ideal shopping experience are changing. Safety is being prioritized and human interaction is being minimized. Our challenge will be to balance the need for safety with the premium customer experience that has come to define retail. 

I imagine a shopping experience that’s a bit of a hybrid between the touchless Amazon Go experience, and a more traditional shopping experience. New cleanliness and safety measures are in place, but they’re tucked away and hidden from the customer’s view. One where store associates act as consultants and inventory managers. Making sure the store is properly stocked at all times, and helping customers find exactly what they’re looking for. Then, when the customer has made the purchase decision, they can complete the transaction independently. Without the need for human interaction, scratchy masks, or plexiglass. 

Last January the experience of shopping at Amazon Go left me cold. Today however, I would feel more comfortable purchasing from Amazon Go than just about any other retailer. Deloitte has called COVID-19 the retail industry’s Great Acceleration, and I don’t believe that’s an exaggeration. Buy online pickup in store has surged, particularly in grocery, where it has struggled to grow adoption early on. Prior to the pandemic, curbside pickup for restaurants was extremely limited and met with hesitation by operators– today it’s proven to be a lifeline. Grocery and restaurants have likely changed for good. And retail? Well, we’ll see. Today they’re starting to reopen with caution, but I believe more permanent changes are not far behind. 

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Published: Tuesday, June 30, 2020