When amazon announced the $13.7bn acquisition of Whole Foods Market in 2017, it came after some oddball attempts to strengthen its grocery business, some conceived by Jeff Bezos himself. One was to develop an “ice-cream truck for adults”, driving into neighbourhoods with lights flashing and horns honking, to sell porterhouse steaks, Shigoku oysters, Nintendo games and other goodies. It was quietly shelved. Another was to create a product so unique that only Amazon could supply it. The answer was the “single-cow burger”, a Wagyu beef patty made from the meat of one animal. You can still find them on its website—though they are now permanently out of stock.
Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods signalled it would take a more conventional approach to the supermarket business. That is probably why, when the deal was announced, Amazon’s share price soared and those of its rivals, such as Walmart, fell. But since then Amazon has treated grocery more like a science experiment than an exercise in seduction, with weak results at Whole Foods and in other formats. Its best-known addition to the retail experience is the “just walk out” technology in physical stores, equivalent to its one-click shopping online. Yet cashierless supermarkets sound like something more beloved of geeks than grocers. What may cut down on time-wasting queues also minimises what some people love about shopping: the human interaction at the till, the hunter-gatherer instinct as they jostle at the meat counter, the Columbian exchange between fellow foodies at the spice rack.