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Can New York City and Amazon get along?
On Tuesday, the internet giant unveiled its first New York location for Amazon Go, its cashierless, brick-and-mortar convenience store concept that has already been tested in 11 other cities.
It might have otherwise been a humdrum opening, were it not for recent history: Amazon and the city went through a messy and public breakup in February, when the company abandoned plans to build a sprawling campus in Queens after many New Yorkers criticized a deal that would have allowed the company to benefit from nearly $3 billion in government incentives.
Now, Amazon is back, hoping that a futuristic concept it has tried out in cities such as Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago will thrive in New York, a singular metropolis where customers are notoriously brusque, shoplifting is common and progressive activists, union leaders and small businesses remain skeptical of the company’s motives.
At least this week, Amazon seemed ready to keep the recent turmoil in the past.
“It’s a great city,” Cameron Janes, Amazon’s vice president of physical stores, said of New York. “And it’s a city full of millions of people who are hungry and who are in a hurry.”
Dozens of enthusiastic shoppers lined up at the Brookfield Place mall and office complex in Battery Park City to get a first peek at the high-tech, 1,300-square-foot market. The store uses proprietary Amazon technology to allow shoppers to walk out without waiting in a checkout line after selecting prepared foods, packaged snacks, beverages and some grocery staples.
“It was surreal,” Carmen Lee, 40, said. “But I was like, ‘You know what, this is great! I don’t have to wait to pay.’ Usually, it takes a while. That’s the longest part of the transaction.”
Still, while Amazon Go received a lot of praise from first-day shoppers, it did not get an entirely warm reception.
“I’d rather go to the mom and pops,” said Daria Siegel, 36, who works in Lower Manhattan and visited the store with a more impressed co-worker who paid for their purchases. “I like to give back to the local economy when I can.”
This sentiment was welcomed by organizations representing local businesses and workers.
“Amazon’s ruthless business model will lead to massive job losses that could cripple our entire economy,” Marc Perrone, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents more than 30,000 workers in New York City, said in a statement.
Bodega owners were particularly concerned that Amazon’s deep pockets and legions of engineers could threaten their businesses, according to Fernando Mateo, the spokesman for United Bodegas of America, which represents bodega owners in New York City.
“To us, it’s a blow,” Mr. Mateo said. “I think it’s a low blow.”
The company’s technological and financial resources would likely put it in better position to grapple with problems that plague New York convenience stores, Mr. Mateo said.
Chief among those challenges: shoplifting. While the crime is hardly unique to New York, retailers and security experts have long thought of New York City as the country’s shoplifting capital.
The New York Police Department said it does not keep track of specific shoplifting incidents, but Mr. Mateo said bodegas face theft daily, making it one of the biggest threats to a store’s profit margins.
Amazon Go’s technology, which the company has tested in the 11 previous locations, may in some ways better enable it to tackle the city’s problem with sticky fingers.
Unlike corner stores, which allow customers to openly walk in off the street, Amazon Go customers enter by scanning an Amazon smartphone app at a row of security gates. As they shop, hundreds of cameras and sensors work to track their purchases.
When shoppers are done, they just walk out, and the store charges their Amazon account.
Mr. Janes said that while Amazon Go had security measures in place, the store’s technology was “very accurate,” making theft less of a concern.
Still, as it prepared to open the New York store, Amazon made several choices that could help it respond to New York customers’ demands and pre-empt a flogging like the one it previously received in the city.
In stocking its shelves, the company wanted to cater to local tastes, Mr. Janes said. That is why hungry shoppers will find an entire row of individually packaged Ess-a-Bagel bagels and tubs of schmear, among other locally sourced products.
Also, in one of its more notable concessions, Amazon Go, which has prided itself on not having cash registers, will also take old-fashioned dollars and cents.
While Amazon was preparing to open its New York store, a mounting outcry took root against cashless businesses, which critics say discriminate against those without credit cards or bank accounts.
The City Council has been discussing a bill that would ban cashless businesses, similar to measures passed recently in Philadelphia and New Jersey.
Amid the national backlash, Amazon announced in April that it would eventually start taking cash at all of its Go stores. For now, it will only do so in New York.
New York customers looking to use cash will be swiped into the store by an employee. When they are done shopping, they will be able to pay at a counter in the store and get a paper receipt.
Mr. Janes framed the shift as a way for the store to stay more competitive.
“When we designed the store from the beginning, cash was not part of it,” Mr. Janes said. “But we recognize that a subset of customers out there do want to pay with cash.”
For now, Amazon will monitor customer feedback and hope the local touches bring it success. Mr. Janes would not say whether the company planned to open more stores in the region, saying only “stay tuned.”
Mr. Mateo said New York’s bodega owners would be nervously watching, too. In the meantime, he hoped the face at their cash registers — the ones that Amazon eliminated — would give them a fighting chance.
“Relationships are the only way bodegas have been able to compete,” he said. “They’re part of the community.”
While many of the shoppers exploring the store on Tuesday expressed praise for its speed and ease, others lamented the lack of human interaction.
Pushkar Suri, 49, who works in Battery Park City but lives in South Brunswick, N.J., said that while he appreciated the store’s convenience, he had reservations about the concept.
“Basically, the personal touch is not there,” he said.
Victor Williams, who works in Brookfield Place and lives in Brooklyn, expressed similar sentiments, saying: “I didn’t really interact with anyone. It felt almost like a carnival ride.”
Still, the novelty of the experience did not dissuade him from returning.
“I’ll probably come back and get something tonight,” he said. “And I’ll definitely come back and get something sometime this week.”