Amazon's Dash Carts are unusably bad

I suppose I shouldn't have been shopping there anyway

I live not-too-far from one of Amazon’s brick-and-mortar grocery stores. Until very recently, it was my preferred grocery store; though Amazon is not a force for good in the world, I’m not sure if I can be convinced that Albertson’s, Kroger, or Walmart are any less evil, and Amazon had a big edge on their competitors: Just Walk Out. Amazon’s prices aren’t much better than other grocery stores, and their selection is decidedly inferior, and their produce is frequently sad (don’t store potatoes under sun lamps, what the hell is wrong with you), but Just Walk Out was the killer feature that nobody else had.

From this end-user’s perspective, Just Walk Out was magical. I used to be able to grab a cart, arrange my bags in it, fill them up, and leave. A few hours later, Amazon sent me a bill. What I especially liked was being able to bag as I go; this allowed me to have dedicated bags for meat, produce, dry goods, non-food items, and so on — this made unloading things when I got home so much easier.

Of course, it wasn’t magic on the backend. If you ever looked up at the ceiling while in the store, you would notice a grid containing a mind-blowing number of cameras, spaced 3 feet or so apart from each other. These cameras recorded your every move through the store, through multiple angles. When you left the store, this footage was combined with data collected through a network of sensors on the shelves and sent to a human working in India to review and ring you up. A lot of people seemed surprised to learn it wasn’t powered by AI, but it was always obvious to me that there was still a human in the loop, given the several-hour delay between leaving the store and receiving your receipt.

Sadly, the magic is now gone; Amazon decided that these humans cost too much and took too long to do their jobs, so they killed the Just Walk Out program in their stores. In its place, they now offer the Dash Cart.

Using the Dash Cart is a truly wretched experience. After about 5 minutes with it, I missed Just Walk Out so badly that I put everything back on the shelf, logged out of the cart, and just walked out of the store, never to return again.

The cart is unlike any other grocery cart you’ve used, in a bad way. It is essentially a large rigid plastic bin on wheels. It features a comically large grey box housing a touch screen and a sensor package above the handle, where the child seat would normally be, which extends over a good portion of the cart. If you’re shopping with a young child that can’t walk on their own for the entire trip, well, no, you’re not; not with this cart, anyway. If, like me, you frequently used this space for delicate produce and squishable items like bread and chips, a small auxiliary bin is provided underneath the sensor package, but it doesn’t have enough clearance to hold a bag standing upright.

Unlike the carts currently on display on Amazon’s PR website, the cart I used didn’t have any sort of venting on any of the bins or on the lower level. Instead, they were just solid plastic. This means that any fluids that leak or are spilled in the cart over the course of its use are there forever, until it is hosed out. If one was left outside in the rain, it would fill up with water.

After I logged into the cart (by using a hidden unlabeled scanner on the underside of the cart that the attendant had to show me,) the screen instructed me that it was a good time to load my own bags into the cart, if I had brought any. I dutifully started arranging my bags in the cart; it gave me seemingly about 30 seconds to do so before it started screaming at me and demanding to know what I had removed from the cart. After a couple of attempts at appeasing it, I started to ignore its complaints and went about finishing arranging my bags. Keep in mind that this was in the vestibule of the store; I hadn’t even gotten within reach of any merchandise yet.

Once I had my bags in place, I was seemingly able to negotiate some sort of peace with the screen by reassuring it that I hadn’t removed anything. Unfortunately, this peace was short-lived; any time the cart was jostled (by, say, pushing it around the store,) it would again demand to know what had been removed. It asked me what I had removed from the cart at least three more times as I made my way from the vestibule to the produce section.

I got as far as the cooler containing grapes and strawberries, selected a carton of strawberries, and put it into my produce bag in the cart. The cart beeped at me. “Whoops,” I thought, “I forgot, I have to scan things now.” I removed the strawberries from the bag, found the barcode, and held it up to one of the two large openings in the sensor package that presumably contained cameras. It scanned the barcode and added the strawberries to my receipt. Success! “Well, this is less convenient but I can make it work,” I thought.

I then selected a bag of grapes. I found the (clearly legible, undamaged) barcode on the grapes and held it up to the cameras; the cart made a positive sounding noise, so I put the grapes into the produce bag. I went to move on to my next objective, but then the cart indicated that it did not recognize the item I had put in the cart.

Folks, I tried to scan the bag of grapes no less than six different times. Each time that I did, the cart would make a positive sounding noise, as if it had recognized the item, and then pop up the screen indicating it had not a few seconds later, after I had put the grapes back into the bag. This was a particularly shitty experience because the screen is angled in a way that it is not visible unless you are standing in the back of the cart, but the sensor package is too large to be convenient to reach over; you have to scan and load each item from the front or side of the cart, and then walk around to the back to be able to see if it worked.

At this point I decided the whole endeavor was untenable. I was shopping for a week’s worth of groceries for my family and had about 70 items on my list, and I came to the conclusion that repeating this song and dance 69 more times would not be very nice at all. I put the strawberries back, logged out of the cart, took my bags back to the car, and drove over to the local incarnation of Kroger, where I was able to complete my shopping without having to deal with any testy machines. Now that Just Walk Out is gone, there is no reason whatsoever for me to choose Amazon over any of their competitors for groceries, and many reasons not to, like that shelf full of green potatoes.

In short, the experience of using the Dash Cart is very similar to using one of those early self-checkout machines (UNEXPECTED ITEM IN BAGGING AREA) except that you push the machine around with you in the store and it harasses you the entire time that you’re shopping. It should be embarrassing to Amazon that these things can’t reliably scan a bag of grapes with a sensor package larger than many “self-driving” vehicles. The only good thing about these carts is that they’re so poorly designed that they surely won’t last. If rain, cars, and the rough-and-tumble life of a grocery cart in a parking lot don’t do them all in by the end of summer, a Chicago winter will surely finish the rest of them off.