What does Amazon's Dash Cart mean for retail?

Amazon's smart shopping trolley, the Dash Cart, was unveiled earlier this week and is the latest piece of commerce hardware in a long line of innovative shopping technologies developed by the eCommerce giant. It follows inventions such as Amazon Go and Dash button technologies in recent years that aim to make shopping a quicker and more convenient experience.

The announcement also comes amid the Covid-19 global pandemic, when many people remain fearful of close contact with strangers in public places such as supermarkets. This has led to various shops and supermarkets ramping up scan & go options during the crisis to try and reduce the amount of human-to-human contact taking place.

But what additional impact, if any, could the Amazon Dash Cart have on the retail sector over the long term? And critically, can it ultimately encourage more people back into stores in the post-Covid world?

The Dash Cart is distinguished from Amazon Go primarily in that the shopping trolley itself is able to identify items that customers pick up via a combination of computer vision algorithms and sensor fusion; whereas Amazon Go relies upon a combination of shelf sensors and cameras around the store to track products taken by the customer. In practice, the Dash Cart will be used for larger shopping missions, whereas Amazon Go is for grabbing one or two items before simply walking out of the shop. 

To begin shopping using the Dash Cart, customers have to sign in with a QR code in the Amazon app. There is also a screen on the trolley for an Alexa shopping list to be viewed as well as the subtotal.

Once the shop is complete, customers will need to exit via the store’s Amazon Dash Cart lane, where sensors will automatically identify the cart and payment is processed on the credit card from the customer’s account.

The smart trolley will first become available to use at the Amazon grocery store in Woodland Hills, California, later this year. But it won’t entirely replace traditional grocery checkouts, with Amazon stating it is designed for small-to-medium-sized shops.

Game-changing technology?

Andy Halliwell, senior director of retail at Publicis Sapient, doesn't see the Dash Cart as particularly game-changing on face value, especially compared to what is already offered by Amazon Go.

“You’ve still got to register, you’ve still got to have a loyalty card, you’ve still got to scan and link your loyalty card to the shopping cart,” he said. “Then you still have to walk around and touch the screen and shopping cart, and right now, in the new socially distanced world that we live in, the idea of having to touch stuff on a regular basis is an absolute anathema to modern consumers.”

Halliwell added that the biggest factor for the Dash Cart’s creation could be that there are computational issues in the in-store tracking technology needed for Amazon Go to work effectively in large scale premises, noting that the largest Amazon Go stores so far have been 10,000 square ft. This is quite typical of Amazon to launch a flashy piece of technology that is actually a prototype for the underlying software which will outlive it - just look at the Dash buttons which were only in circulation for a couple of years, but Amazon today still offers "subscribe and save" deals on repeated orders, no physical button needed. 

Insight into the future?

Nevertheless, regardless of whether the Dash Cart really takes off, the invention is potentially indicative the way forward for shopping in the future, particularly in supermarkets; one where tech is used to take friction out of the buying process.

Andy Mulcahy, strategy & insight director, IMRG, commented: “No-one has a crystal ball here, but it does seem that social distancing is here to stay for another year at least, potentially much longer. Will stores return to a point where queuing amd enhanced hygiene are not factors anymore, or are they a new reality of in-store shopping?” New ways to streamline and shorten the shopping process could therefore be seen with increasing regularity from companies like Amazon.

The most unique aspect of this smart trolley technology could be the rich source of real-time data it could provide about customers while they shop; this is especially critical in light of the rapidly changing consumer behaviour seen during the course of the Covid-19 pandemic. These insights could be critical in enhancing the customer experience and enticing them into shops.

Halliwell said: “It’s looking at what products people put into the basket, what do people take out of the basket, why did they go around the store in that particular order, why did they stop where they did, where are the chokepoints in the store, what can I do to reformat and restructure the store?”

The advent of the Dash Cart may signal a way of gaining such insights in an unobtrusive way.

While it could well be on the right track, Mulcahy believes the release of the Amazon Dash Cart could be too early whilst still in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, where other priorities exist that aren’t all necessarily addressed by the technology. “Whether smart trollies will become useful devices in the long-term is an interesting question, but the current context is one where people are having to queue to get in to shops and don’t want to touch anything another customer has touched,” he said.

Clearly the Amazon Dash Cart is an interesting invention, of the type that often emerges from the R&D walls of the tech giant. And it comes in a period where there is a need to find ways of streamlining the shopping experience and reducing interactions in stores. Whether the Dash Cart is a long-term answer remains to be seen; the need to still touch surfaces doesn’t make it completely ideal during the ongoing pandemic and whether it will make shopping speedier than existing scan & go technologies is debateable.

However, the concept behind it could be vital for the future, not least in providing a rich source of data into consumer in-store behaviours, something that is likely to be especially important in the post-Covid landscape. It will be interesting to how far and wide Amazon take the idea in the future, refining and adapting the technology.