Everything Old Is New Again

Amazon’s cashierless grocery store is designed to allow shoppers to skip checkout lines and cash registers. The idea is that we scan our smartphones when we enter, pick up whatever we like, and walk out, with charges automatically posted to our accounts.

Things worked well in the prototypes, which restricted testing to a few carefully chosen and monitored Amazon employees. But technical glitches caused by the system’s inability to handle high volumes have pushed back the opening date, as reported by the WSJ.

This sent us back to the history books for a closer look at grocery store technology.

Up until 1916 groceries were on shelves behind the counter, and sold in what were called Dry Goods stores. Shoppers would give their lists to clerks, who collected the items for them.

Then Clarence Saunders came along and invented the self-service grocery store to cut labor costs. His store, Piggly Wiggly, was the first to put prices on every item, provide shopping carts, and build checkout stands.

In pursuit of ever-lower costs and ever-lower prices, he opened the first automated grocery store, Keedoozle, in 1937. Products were visible behind glass windows, like a giant vending machine. Shoppers would insert a special key in the slot in front of the product they wanted and the “purchase” would be recorded electronically. Behind the scenes, stockroom clerks packed the groceries and delivered them to the front of the store. When customers were done shopping, they would give the key to the cashier and pay for their groceries.

According to Supermarket News, Saunders tried the Keedoozle concept three times, but failed each time because the circuits couldn’t handle the traffic during peak hours. Customers regularly got mixed-up orders. In addition, the system wasn’t fast enough or efficient enough when there was high demand. Keedoozle closed its doors for good in 1939.

We wonder how many people at Amazon Go ever heard of Clarence Saunders.

For more on everything old is new again, watch this two-minute clip from the musical All That Jazz.