Monday, tech giant Amazon debuted its latest innovation, Amazon Go. The offering is poised to change the way we shop at supermarkets by allowing users to purchase items in person without standing in line or ever checking out with a cashier.
“We created the world’s most advanced shopping technology so you never have to wait in line,” Amazon’s announcement reads. “With our Just Walk Out Shopping experience, simply use the Amazon Go app to enter the store, take the products you want, and go! No lines, no checkout.”
AS A BLACK MAN WHO’S HAD A LIFETIME OF EXPERIENCE SHOPPING, THE THOUGHT OF GOING INTO A RETAIL SPACE AND SIMPLY PUTTING ITEMS IN MY BAG GIVES ME ANXIETY.
Amazon’s latest product seems like a handy tool—if you don’t mind your physical location, buying and eating habits tracked by a multinational corporation—and I’ll probably give it a try once the Amazon Go stores are up and running. Still, as a black man who’s had a lifetime of experience shopping, the thought of going into a store and simply putting items in my bag gives me anxiety.
According to Amazon, the “Just Walk Out Shopping experience” is made possible by “the same types of technologies used in self-driving cars: computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning.” Details of the new product and stores have been scant, but it seems Amazon will use sensors to track items in its stores and, when shoppers using the app leave the store with items, they’ll be charged for them through the app—which will presumably be linked to a method of payment.
Headlines about Amazon Go outlined my concerns. “Amazon looks to make shoplifting legal with Amazon Go,” said The Next Web. According to GQ.com, “Amazon Wants to Make Shopping Feel More Like Stealing.” Cute—except not everyone wants to feel like they’re shoplifting.
According to the FBI, there were 1,118,390 shoplifting arrestsnationwide in 2015. There are no official numbers on rates of shoplifting by race but the agency does keep demographic data regarding larceny-thefts—a category under which shoplifting falls. In 2015, whites accounted for nearly 70 percent of all larceny-thefts. But, despite whites being arrested for most of the nation’s shoplifting, blacks are too often treated as suspects for the crime. In fact, the profiling of black consumers as shoplifters based solely on race is so common that it has been given a name, “shopping while black.”
In August, rapper Vic Mensa was shopping while black to the tune of $4,000 when he was detained by police on suspicion of shoplifting. Then there was, of course, the fantastic series of videos by Vine user Rashid Polo that captured the experience. The anecdotes are endless. Ultimately, though, the experience of being treated as a potential thief while attempting to spend your hard-earned money can be humiliating, frustrating, annoying and sometimes dangerous.
THESE INCIDENTS MAY SEEM TRIVIAL IN THE GRAND SCHEME OF A LIFETIME OF SHOPPING BUT TAKEN IN AGGREGATE THEY CAN BE CRAZY MAKING.
I’ve been accused of shoplifting before, had my bags searched. I’ve been followed around stores by “busy” salespeople only to have them scurry away when I actually need their help with something. I’ve asked salespeople to see merchandise and been given less expensive versions of what I requested. I also worked retail in college (a bookstore) was asked to “keep an eye” on black customers and found most of the store’s sensors placed in the African-American literature section. These incidents may seem trivial in the grand scheme of a lifetime of shopping but taken in aggregate they can be crazy making.
I’ve developed tricks to, hopefully, make my shopping experiences easier. If I’m buying clothes, I try to avoid wearing any items currently for sale at the store. I always hand items back to dressing room attendants if I don’t intend to buy them. I always stop at the door if a forgotten sensor in my bag triggers an alarm and I always, always, always hold onto my receipts until I’m at home and safe. It’s the disappearance of the last thing with the arrival of Amazon Go that gives me pause.
Along with changing the way we shop, Amazon Go is also set to disrupt the way people like me prove we’re actually shopping in a society that often, regardless of technology, suspects us of shoplifting. Without points of purchase, cashiers to witness transactions, and receipts to document them, black consumers seem to be left wide open to interpretation by, I assume, security guards in stores and reliant on digital documentation—safeguards that don’t necessarily instill confidence.
To better understand how Amazon plans to deal with shoplifting and security in its stores, I reached out to the company’s press department, which declined the opportunity to comment. “We don’t have anything more to share at this time, but we’ll be sure to stay in touch,” I was told. Again, not a response that makes me feel comfortable with legal shoplifting, as The Next Web put it.
Ultimately, Amazon Go will be revealed as either a technological innovation that will forever alter commerce or a stunt that fails to meet that lofty goal due to its impracticality. Whether Amazon knows it or not, black consumers—who command an estimated $1.2 trillion in buying power—will be a factor in that success or failure. For most of us, the appearance of shoplifting isn’t a thrill but something to be avoided at all costs. To help avoid it, Amazon is hopefully crafting its Amazon Go security measures with consideration for racial bias.
That’ll make Amazon Go a convenient service in more ways than one, not only improving the way we shop but also the way some of us shop while black.