High Tech vs. High Touch

Amazon Go, a technology-driven retail grocery experience, announced recently it was opening to the public after a few rounds of beta testing with Amazon employees.

Here’s the skinny on how Amazon Go works: You enter a convenience-sized store (1,800 square-feet versus Whole Food’s 20,000 square-feet) using your Amazon Go app on a smart phone for entry, You must have an Amazon account to shop—and a willingness to have your purchases relentlessly tracked. You walk through the aisles, select items, and simply walk out when you’re done. The app tracks your purchases and charges your account accordingly.

Amazon Go’s small footprint model is ideal for urban settings and for customers dropping by for a quick grocery trip after work, or those who primarily eat out. The product selection is about one-tenth of a standard store.

Consumer experts predict that such a high  tech  grab will appeal mainly to millennials who like to save time, an estimated 5 to 10 minutes per visit, and like shopping without much human interaction. Missing from the equation are the mundane moments that build community. The more we replace human interactions with computers, the less opportunity we have to form these relationships.

The whole thing brings to mind futurist John Naisbitt’s exploration of what he calls “high tech vs. high touch.” Back in the ‘80s, Naisbitt recognized how the rapidly accelerating march of technology would impinge on daily activities—like grocery shopping. He correctly predicted  that as high tech asserts a greater presence in our lives, humans react by seeking experiences involving high touch, i.e. human interaction and tactile experiences. It’s a balancing reflex. And  it also explains the resurgence of macramé among millennials.

The typical grocery store has upwards of 70,000 items to choose from. On average, you’ll walk out with 25 items. Along the way, you might speak with the produce manager, butcher, deli workers, barista, and, of course, the cashier. Frequent the same store often enough and you’ll become familiar with employees and other shoppers. Acquiring groceries becomes a social experience. If you value all of this, you’ll bypass Amazon Go, aside for those times you want to get in and out quickly.

I believe that Sonoma County residents have a powerful sense of place. We value connections to the farmers, producers, and workers who grow, prepare, and serve our food. Our relation to food transcends  the pure utility of filling cupboards and bellies.

Yes, there may be a time and place for Amazon Go in Sonoma County, but we sure hope it never replaces traditional grocery shopping and the essential social connections we make in our local markets.


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