How we wound up with Amazon Go: A history of grocery store innovations

Photo via SounderBruce/Wikimedia

How we wound up with Amazon Go: A history of grocery store innovations


How we wound up with Amazon Go: A history of grocery store innovations

With eager customers lining up to give Amazon’s prototypical futuristic grocery store a whirl in Seattle, here’s a look at all of the innovation and technology that took us from the very first grocery story all the way to today.


The first-ever shop even approximating what we think of today as a grocery store was Memphis, Tennessee’s first Piggly Wiggly in 1916. Its killer feature? Self-service. Prior to Piggly Wiggly, consumers used to hand their grocery lists over to clerks at the store counter, and then wait for them to collect and bag up the goods. The available items for purchase were predominantly dry goods and grains. Dairy, produce and butchered meats would continue to be sold in separate stores for decades. Even so, Clarence Saunders’ radical concept store debuted many of the innovations synonymous with today’s grocery shopping experience – baskets, aisles, and checkout lanes chief among them.

The shopping cart

(Photo via Flickr/Polycart)

One staple missing from Saunders’ forward-thinking Piggly Wiggly stores, however, was the iconic shopping cart. It wouldn’t be invented until 1936, when it was introduced to Humpty Dumpty stores by Sylvan Goodman. The design, inspired by folding chairs, was initially snubbed by shoppers. Men found them effeminate, and women resented their likeness to baby strollers. Inventor Orla Watson later pioneered the rear folding wall “nesting” version of the cart still used today.

The drive-in market

Even in the 1930s, Los Angeles was a city of drivers. Grocers adapted to the needs of Los Angelenos by testing out grocery malls of sorts, where butchers, bakers, produce shops and dry goods grocers all set up shop next to one another, flanked by large parking lots. Even though the individual specialty businesses were independently owned, their close proximity to one another gave the appearance of a single shopping destination.


You might be surprised to learn that Coca-Cola invented the coupon in 1887. It became an almost instant success story, but the idea didn’t quite pick up until the 1950s when The Nielsen Coupon Clearing House formed to help police the redemption of coupons. Up until that point, there had been no centralized way of authenticating coupons, and retailers were reluctant to even accept them. Further coupon innovations would come in the form of the Valpak neighborhood savings booklet in 1968, and the first newspaper coupon section insert in 1972. Target would eventually take the technology digital, debuting scannable smartphone coupons in 2010.

The supermarket

Back on the East Coast at about the same time, the first true supermarket debuted. Former Kroger and A&P executive Michael Kullen opened King Kullen in the Queens borough of NYC. Riding the same trend as LA’s drive-in markets, but sensitive to the harsh seasonal swings in weather on the East Coast, Kullen finally brought the Smithsonian’s five characteristics of a supermarket together under one roof: Separate departments, self-service, discount pricing, chain marketing and volume dealing. The reception was overwhelmingly positive, and competitors adopted the model across the country.

One-stop shopping

Originally made popular by brands like Portland-based Fred Meyer, the one-stop shopping phenomenon expanded upon the proven single grocery store model by adding departments specializing in clothing, pharmacy and health goods, homewares and furniture, music, and even electronics and appliances. While Pacific Northwest shoppers grew up frequenting these enormous stores, the model didn’t permeate the rest of the country until the 1990s when K-Mart and Walmart began adding grocery departments to many of their already gargantuan stores.

American Express, Visa & Mastercard

There was a time not that long ago when grocery store checkout lanes log jammed as cashiers and customers awkwardly juggled handwritten checks, balance books and driver licenses between them. Half of all purchases were made by personal check for much of the latter half of the 20th century, and accepting them required getting all sorts of personal information not printed on the check, like home phone numbers.

In 1958, the first American Express credit cards debuted, which allowed holders to add funds to an account accessible via their plastic card. The first debit card was issued to account-holders in California by Bank of America that same year. When the bank expanded it nationally in 1966, it was renamed Visa. A group of banking competitors would team up to release their communal Mastercard within weeks. Debit, and eventually credit cards, dramatically shaved checkout times, sometimes down to just seconds.


Invented by David R. Humble in 1992, self-service checkout terminals rose to near-ubiquity in the early aughts, before facing a stiff backlash and losing significant market space. Originally intended to allow a single clerk to oversee sometimes more than a dozen self-service registers at once, grocery stores tore out existing checkout lanes to install deltas of self-checkout terminals. Unfortunately, the limitations of the system soon piled up.

Because these terminals were retrofitted into existing store design, monitors welcoming the next guest were often obstructed from lines of basket-carriers. The system is also only as strong as its weakest link. A single incorrectly tagged barcode in a store full of hundreds of thousands of products can cause enormous inefficiencies with an iconic “Unexpected item in the bagging area” error message. As many of the savings intended by eliminating cashiers were ultimately lost to theft and wasted time, chains began ripping the kiosks right back out just a decade after they were installed.

Smart stores

Kroger recently announced that its Microsoft Azure-backed Kroger Edge technology will be rolled out across 200 of its stores in 2018. Aisles will be outfitted entirely with digital prices, and monitors displaying video ads for various products. If consumers take the time to build their shopping lists beforehand, shelves will light up as they walk down the aisles, making grocery shopping more of a sprint than a marathon. You’ll even be able to set dietary restriction profiles online, and allow the store to build meal plan carts for vegans or those with food allergies, just by walking up and down the rows.

Amazon Go

In any other year, Kroger’s high-tech makeover would be huge news. But 2018 will see Amazon Go open its doors to the public after a lengthy beta run restricted to Amazon employees. “Go” stores use hundreds of cameras and sensors along with a mandatory app on consumer smartphones to track and charge the items that people walk out with. The technology is fittingly called Just Walk Out, and with it, Amazon has completely eliminated checkout lines and the necessity of human cashiers to staff them. You simply grab your groceries, and then walk out. The first Amazon Go is roughly the size of a large 7-11, and Just Walk Out won’t be retrofitted into existing Whole Foods stores, which were acquired by Amazon in 2017. Well, not yet.


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