I stood outside the Whole Foods in Glover Park for about three minutes one day last week and heard four versions of the same question: “Wait, is this place open? For real?”
ICYMI, the store has been closed since the spring of 2017, when rat infestations forced it to shut down and legal battles over the required remodel dragged on.
It is open once again, but not to the general public. For now, only Amazon Prime members can come in, as the store becomes one of two Whole Foods in the country to launch Amazon’s Just Walk Out technology. I tried it out, and found it to be both very convenient and very creepy.
How it works: You scan a QR code in the Amazon or Whole Foods app when you walk in, which opens up a little gate. (You can also scan your palms instead, if you take a minute to set up that function. But I skipped the biometrics, thanks very much.) Then you go shopping, bagging your own items as you go. There’s no cash register to queue up for before you leave, no line to wait in to get out the door. You just scan your QR code one more time to open another gate on your way out. The app charges whatever credit card you have on file with Prime. And the receipt hits your inbox soon afterward.
The store is brightly lit, and looks pretty much like a regular small Whole Foods, with the exception of paper bags hanging around the aisles (reminder: Per DC law, they’re five cents each). Several employees waited by the entrance, eager to show me exactly where to scan my phone to start my virtual cart. (Amazon says Just Walk Out stores will hire a “comparable number” of people to similarly sized Whole Foods, and the Glover Park location has a dozen job openings listed online.)
Once past the gate, though, I couldn’t quite shake the cold feeling that machines watched my every move—which, of course, they did.
As Amazon describes it, the Just Walk Out technology uses “a combination of computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning—similar to what you’d find in a self-driving car.” Basically, information from cameras in the store and weight sensors underneath products are processed in real-time to keep track of what you toss in your bag. An employee told me that if I picked something up and didn’t want it, I needed to put it back in the same spot. (A company rep for Whole Foods declined to answer specific questions about the technology.)
Walking out of the store without scanning and bagging felt bizarrely like shoplifting, but sure enough, I received an email receipt two hours later. The email itself just showed the total, but it included a link to the Whole Foods app, where I could see my dish soap, raspberries, and single paper bag in itemized form. There’s also a button to request a refund, and a digital barcode you can present to any Whole Foods store to bring something back.
So when will the store open to the rest of the city? I’d love to tell you, but the company rep dodged my question about that. Maybe I should have scanned my palms after all.