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We May Have Just Uncovered Amazon’s Vision for a New Kind of Retail Store

The stores would be low on cashiers, but high on customer tracking.

Jason Del Rey has been a business journalist for 15 years and has covered Amazon, Walmart, and the e-commerce industry for the last decade. He was a senior correspondent at Vox.

Amazon perfected online shopping. It may now want to do the same with brick-and-mortar stores.

A recently filed patent application by Amazon reveals details about a new kind of retail establishment that would allow shoppers to pick items and leave without stopping at a cashier station or kiosk.

Based around the idea of complete convenience, such a store would work using a system of cameras, sensors or RFID readers that would be able to identify shoppers and the items they’ve chosen, according to the application, which was filed in September and published in January. The technology would also potentially give Amazon a more cost-effective way to compete with traditional retailers by operating a store that doesn’t require cashiers and could similarly serve as a place to pick up online orders.

This application is a continuation of a previously filed Amazon patent application, but the new one provides more details on how the system would work in a retail setting and demonstrates that Amazon is still, at a minimum, thinking about the topic.

An Amazon spokeswoman did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

These efforts come at a time when Amazon is increasingly focusing on getting orders into customers’ hands as quickly as possible. For its Prime members, who pay an annual $99 fee, the company has expanded on its wildly popular, two-day shipping service to now include free, two-hour delivery in some parts of New York City, Baltimore, Miami and Dallas. Additionally, Amazon has experimented with placing vending machines selling Amazon devices in some U.S. airports and has also placed lockers inside convenience stores in some cities from which customers can pick up online orders. In the most extreme case, Amazon is testing package delivery to be carried out by unmanned flying devices, or drones.

Patent applications don’t necessarily mean a company will follow through with the plans outlined in them. Technology companies regularly file for patents that never come to light but that protect the company’s intellectual property.

A large part of the application Re/code uncovered describes a system that will make Amazon’s warehouses, or fulfillment centers, more efficient. The most interesting tidbits talk about how the system of devices could also help create a retail store experience. Here’s one interesting excerpt:

“[W]hen the customer passes through the exit (transition area) of the retail location, the items picked by the user may be automatically transitioned from the materials handling facility to the user and the user may be charged a fee for the items. … For example, if the user is purchasing items from a retail location, rather than the user having to stop and ‘check out’ with a cashier, teller or automated check station, because the picked items are already known and identified on an item identifier list associated with the user, the user may simply exit the retail location with the items. The exit of the user will be detected and, as the user passes through the exit (transition area), the user, without having to stop or otherwise be delayed, will automatically be charged a fee for the items (the items are transitioned to the user).”

When the person exits the store, the system triggers an email or another type of electronic message that is sent to the shopper indicating the items sold and the purchase price. Another section of the application talks about how the system could associate a rental price or “borrow time” with the shopper when he exits a rental location or library with an item. This section seems noteworthy when you consider that Amazon is now helping to operate some stores on college campuses, where students can pick up online orders a day after they are placed.

Some of the explanations for how Amazon would be able to connect a product with a specific shopper could stoke some privacy concerns if the company actually creates such a tracking system for a retail store. The application describes the use of cameras that would snap photos to show, for example, when a person entered the facility, when she removed something from a shelf and when she left with an item in her hand. There is mention of “facial recognition.” How would Amazon know who is who? A description from the application of a “user,” which could be a warehouse worker or a shopper, provides some hints.

“User information may include, but is not limited to, user-identifying information (e.g., images of the user, height of the user, weight of the user), a user name and password, user biometrics, purchase history, payment instrument information (e.g., credit card, debit card, check card), purchase limits, and the like.” Emphasis mine. It’s not clear if Amazon is currently working on this initiative or plans to in the future.

Still, the application is extra juicy for Amazon observers because of two of the three inventors attached. One is Steve Kessel, a long-time Amazonian who is one of Jeff Bezos’s most trusted advisers and is best known as the leader of the team that created the Kindle. Multiple sources say he has been working on a top-secret project at Amazon after stepping away from the company for some time back in 2012.

Another name is Dilip Kumar, who has been with Amazon for almost 12 years. He spent two of those years as Jeff Bezos’s technical adviser, or “shadow,” one of the most prized roles inside the company. He, too, is working on a closely guarded project, according to sources, but it’s not clear if this is the project he and Kessel are working on, or whether the two are currently working together. Kumar’s LinkedIn profile simply says he is “[r]esponsible for technology for a new initiative at Amazon.”

The third inventor listed on the application is another long-time Amazon veteran, Gianna Puerini. She has been with the company for nearly 12 years and is a vice president focused on product management and user experience, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Amazon’s plans for the brick-and-mortar sector have been a popular topic of speculation in the retail and e-commerce worlds. In October, the Wall Street Journal reported Amazon was going to open a retail store on 34th Street in Manhattan by the end of 2014. While that never happened, Amazon has leased the building and is using it as a mini warehouse from which couriers whisk same-day orders to Amazon Prime members.

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