Last September, when Whole Foods opened a new high-tech “365 by Whole Foods Market” in Bellevue, Wash., I visited to see what all the fuss could be about when it comes to grocery shopping. As a longtime consumer of food — and other stuff that can be purchased in stores — I figured I had the traditional enter / shop / purchase / leave concept figured out.
But while wandering the shiny, new, modern-day store, with its digital signage, interactive kiosks, tea-making robot and more, I accepted the notion that grocery shopping as I knew it was poised to change forever.
The 365 store looked like the grocery store of the future. And then on Friday, as Amazon announced plans to acquire Whole Foods for $13.7 billion, the future essentially stepped in to say, “Cleanup on aisle Day One.”
That blockbuster news is making me rethink everything I learned in Bellevue last fall. The store, just the third in the country at the time (there are now four), was cool in part because it was one chain’s attempt to compete in a world that increasingly looks like it will be shaped by Amazon’s dominant presence and relentless innovation.
Whole Foods’ 365 grocery tech included increased opportunities for shoppers to interact with the chain via their own personal electronic devices. The My 365 Rewards program is a 100 percent digital loyalty program offering personalized recommendations, tailored content and special deals based on shopper preferences.
It seems kind of quaint now. Like, oh, I don’t know … stores that sell books? Wait!
It doesn’t seem far-fetched to imagine Amazon implementing what it already is trying and learning about grocery retail into Whole Foods as a whole.
The 365 stores, designed for a quick-and-easy shopping experience with add-on digital information at your fingertips, could just become Amazon Go outlets. That concept of grab-and-go shopping for Prime members is still being tested in Seattle, but if it ever goes wide the technology will surely eclipse what’s being utilized at 365.
The fear that Amazon’s prowess in artificial intelligence and machine learning and robotics could replace human grocery workers is also a real one. At the Bellevue 365, it seemed like a big deal that a self-serve teaBOT was located near the front of the store, brewing drinks via touch-screen orders. Maybe someday the machine will have someone to talk to on lunch breaks in the form of robotic checkers and baggers.
Isabelle Francois, a vice president of 365 by Whole Foods Market, told me last September that oftentimes, technology is an add-on for brands looking to quickly innovate and survive. The 27-year-old Whole Foods appeared to recognize that lesson with what it was bringing to 365.
“At Whole Foods, the brand grew first and then technology was brought in. The cool thing with 365 is we were able to build something coherent,” Francois said. “What was really important to us was to build a brand with a digital foundation.”
And while it remains to be seen whether Amazon can ever truly figure out how it wants to sell groceries — besides ALL the ways — the tech giant is certainly building off its digital foundation. And it took a big step toward acquiring a whole lot of data to help in the groceries endeavor on Friday.
It’s like watching a kid speed through the grocery store on the back of a shopping cart with a big smile across his face. And the smile is the Amazon logo.