The Digital Bouncer

A few months ago, Amazon with great fanfare announced Amazon Go, a new concept for a physical retail store. Its introductory video, which includes appearances from two of my former colleagues at Amazon, promises a unique experience: walk in, take a few things off the shelves, walk out, and you’ve paid without ever waiting in a line or opening your wallet. The store remains in employee-only beta test, so I haven’t been inside, but one aspect of Amazon Go worries me: it’s a convenience store with a bouncer.

Amazon’s “Just Walk Out Shopping” depends on its customers having established an Amazon account, having installed an app on their smartphone, and having set up a payment method. Entrance is gated on all of these things, and presumably if a person’s account is not in good standing, the digital bouncer will deny the customer entry to the store. “Not in good standing” could mean a credit card having expired, fraudulent activity on the account, or many other reasons. This means that, for whatever reason, a non-human bouncer could deny a person entry to Amazon Go. It also means that people without smartphones, or people whose phone batteries have died, can’t shop.

This is a pretty minor injustice in isolation. I don’t have the right to buy a chocolate bar at Amazon Go when plenty of other stores exist. This is just the latest example of a company using discriminatory assumptions to select their customers. Consider Uber and Lyft, which are rapidly and justifiably disrupting the tired old taxi industry. To use these services effectively, a customer in the U.S. needs a payment instrument (a credit card, debit card, or PayPal account) and a smartphone with enough battery life and data coverage. By contrast, a taxi driver must pick up any passenger hailing a cab on the street and, with rare exceptions, must drive the passenger wherever they want to go, without any prior verification, and may collect a fare by cash or card (often preferring cash). This certainly adds risk to taxi driving as an occupation, but it also leaves a vital option available for people with only cash or without a working smartphone.

Also on the rise are cashless stores. Amazon Books, a physical store which predates Amazon Go and which lacks a bouncer, only accepts credit and debit cards for payment. Optimism Brewing, a great brewery in Seattle, sells its beers by the glass in its sprawling taproom and accepts cards only. The shrinking volume of cash transactions — 32% of consumer transactions in 2015, down from 40% in 2012 — is driving businesses to consider eliminating cash as a payment option. In effect, the requirement to carry a valid credit or debit card also imposes a series of requirements to accomplish a menial task like buying a book or drinking a beer.

Who’s hurt by the mandate to have a credit or debit card, and potentially a smartphone, to patronize businesses that offer basic services? The primary victim group is poorer consumers, including the homeless. Imagine a panhandler or busker who’s taken in $100 in cash but who can’t buy a sandwich at Amazon Go or a pint at Optimism. Imagine a child who receives a $10 a week allowance. That level of “income” is far too low to justify a credit card or bank account and not every parent can afford a smartphone compatible with mobile payment technology. Imagine a tourist who, traveling abroad, finds that his credit card and smartphone don’t pass the digital bouncer, so he’s unable to shop.

By no means am I a skeptic about credit cards or smartphones. I’m optimistic that more people will be able to benefit from them in the future. In the meantime, though, the digital bouncer is bringing the digital divide into the physical world.