Stressed coders, strict standards and lots of standing around: Inside London’s stalling grocery revolution
An ex-employee spills the beans on what it's like to work at one of London's Amazon Fresh stores
Afternoon — a slight delay to today’s email, as we’ve been waiting for one of the biggest retailers in the world to get back to this humble London newsletter. With the rollout of high-tech Amazon Fresh stores in the capital stumbling as of late, we speak to a former employee for an inside look at life on the automated shop floor.
Plus: not so affordable housing, cannabis for breakfast, and somebody wins a staircase at auction.
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What we’ve spied
🏠 Turns out London’s affordable housing schemes are a bit of a joke, with the BBC finding landlords are turning away people for not being wealthy enough. If you want to apply for one of the capital’s discounted rental homes, you sometimes need to earn at least £35,000 to stand any chance of being accepted, the BBC found. FYI the average London income is below that minimum, at £34,000. MPs are now calling for an investigation into how tenants are chosen for the below market value schemes, which on paper are meant for those on lower incomes. More grim housing tidings from City Hall — its published forecasts that suggest the average London rent could soar to over £2,700 per month next year, up from the current average of £2,570.
🚗 Rishi Sunak’s pivot towards motorists in London continues — the prime minister has announced a review of low-traffic neighbourhoods and is reportedly considering a crackdown on 20mph speed limits. In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, Sunak firmly set out the Conservatives’ new pro-motorist pitch, saying: “I just want to make sure people know that I’m on their side in supporting them to use their cars to do all the things that matter to them”. The PM voiced concern that LTNs just push congestion onto nearby roads — a common critique of those opposing the car-blocking schemes in London, which have multiplied in recent years. Advocates say the schemes reduce traffic overall, and in turn air pollution. Meanwhile the Guardian reports Sunak could curb the ability of councils to introduce 20mph speed limits, which have cropped up in a few London boroughs now.
🧑🍳 Trouble for a Notting Hill restaurant after posting a picture of its all-white all-male staff. The photo was shared by Thomas Straker, a chef with millions of followers on social media, with the caption “chef team assembled”. It quickly prompted responses criticising the seeming lack of diversity, like: “you can take our flavours but won’t hire our people”, and: “why aren’t there any female chefs?”. Straker responded by telling everyone to “calm down”.
🍄 A tribunal has been hearing how the author of the Met Police’s drug strategy allegedly got stoned and high while employed by the force. The tribunal heard that commander Julian Bennett allegedly took LSD and magic mushrooms while off duty and smoked weed before breakfast, despite being in charge of the force's anti-drugs strategy. Bennett denies all the allegations. One point of contention is that he’s refused to take a drug test, arguing that he is taking a legal CBD product for facial palsy and he’s worried it’ll trigger a false positive.
🪴 Residents in west London are taking on the Duke of Northumberland in defence of their allotments. The Duke’s plans to replace the allotments on his land in Isleworth, Hounslow with dozens of new homes has prompted over 900 objections. Locals say he’s trying to line his “already deep pockets”. Isleworth councillor Salman Shaheen described plans as “an ill-conceived plan designed not to support a treasured historic asset, but to destroy one for private gain”. Melissa Murphy KC, speaking for the Duke’s Northumberland Estates, said “quantitative improvements” were proposed and the project would be a “well-located, well-designed scheme, which delivers 40% affordable housing”.
💰 Someone has bought that staircase for sale in west London. Entrepreneur Simon Squibb won the disused staircase in Twickenham in an auction for £25,000 — above the guide price of £20,000. "I want to turn this staircase into something that represents that anything is possible," he explained. "My vision is for each of the floors to have a different pop-up business — it might have a designer showcasing their new line of clothes on one floor, a coffee shop on another and a new restaurant at the top that is serving food for people to try."
👨🏫 A surprise headliner for the O2 in Greenwich: Dr Jordan Peterson. The event, titled “A New Vision Of The Future” is part of the controversial psychologist’s Beyond Order tour, which will see him take on huge venues from Krakow to Amsterdam. Whether he’ll manage to fill the O2 arena’s 20,000 seats is yet to be seen. He’s had trouble before, with rumours that just 5,000 turned up to an 18,000 seat venue in Ottawa. Tickets go on sale Friday at 10am.
🗳 Congratulations to the mayor of Lewisham, who’s been officially selected as a parliamentary candidate in, er, Bristol. The announcement has prompted several calls for him to resign as mayor of the south London borough, with the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Lewisham saying he needs to “make up his mind” between Bristol and London. For his part, Damien Egan says he plans to stand down at some point before the next election, but that for now he would continue in his role as mayor.
🚴 Works will soon begin on permanent cycle lanes for Kensington High Street. The new “advisory” cycle lanes will run down Fulham Road and the eastern and western sections of Kensington High Street. Painters are due to start work on them on August 14.
🚇 At the risk of over-exciting TfL nerds, here are some new photos of the flashy new underground trains coming to the Piccadilly line. The first of 94 trains have arrived in Germany for testing, ahead of entering service in 2025. They’re apparently going to have walk-through, air-conditioned carriages and 10% higher capacity. One more tube story for you — passengers of the Jubilee line were recently left bewildered when their train accidentally pulled into the abandoned Charing Cross tube station.
A glitch in London’s high-tech grocery revolution
News more Amazon Fresh sites are closing in London didn’t surprise one ex-employee, who saw the pessimism of managers from the inside. “I overheard them say, ‘Basically, Amazon’s not making any money from this and it’s not predicting to make any money’,” says Duncan*, a former staff member of one London branch who spoke to the Spy.
Back in March 2021, Amazon looked poised to kill the London corner shop — and maybe the city’s bigger supermarkets too. The retail giant had opened the first of its ‘just walk out’ stores in the capital in Ealing, unveiling its model for revolutionising the way Londoners shopped. Swapping tills and checkout workers for cameras and AI, Amazon Fresh lets customers just scan in with their phones, grab what they want, and then walk out, seemingly without paying.
But two years later, the Amazon Fresh rollout in London looks like it’s stalling. On Sunday, July 23, three sites closed their doors for good — the initial Ealing store, as well as sites in Wandsworth and East Sheen. It comes not long after the closure of the Dalston shop, which was just a stone’s throw from the more traditional shopping experience of Ridley Road market, back in January.
Amazon Fresh is by no means out for the count, though. 16 stores still remain in the capital, and two more are supposedly planned, for Liverpool Street and Moorgate. But the retail giant’s ambitions appear reined in, as the company undergoes what it’s calling ‘portfolio optimisation’.
“Amazon's original plan to open hundreds of stores in the UK was certainly stopped in its tracks,” Martin Heubel, director of consulting firm Consulterce, tells the Spy. “Not only because of the recent cost of living crisis fuelled by the pandemic. But also because it is incredibly expensive to set up, open and run these shops in prime London locations.”
Nick Bubb, a retail analyst at Hardman & Co, agrees that location may be part of Amazon Fresh’s problems. He told us: ”Some of the locations have been terrible, like East Sheen, which has an elderly/middle-class population, rather than the bearded hipsters who would know how the tech works.”
Duncan was at his shop from day one, having applied to Amazon Fresh during the pandemic. After being trained on Zoom he was sent off to a London site, joining a team prepping for the store’s opening day. Duncan was attracted by the “cool tech”, and it was also hard to turn down the £14 hourly wage which, as managers boasted to him on video calls, was apparently £1 more than M&S.
His job title was retail associate — one of the few front-facing members of staff in Amazon’s stripped-back automated model. “My role was to greet customers, help them sign them in with their phones, and answer any customer queries,” he says. “I also did stock replacing and cooking the in-store meals that they sold as well.”
In practice that meant, in Duncan’s words, “a lot of standing around”. One of the jobs that even the tech can’t fully automate is the alcohol section, where staff are needed to check IDs. “You just had to stand there for a really long time, so that got exhausting.”
But what Duncan also remembers was the quest for perfection ahead of opening. Inspections from higher-ups in the company were a regular occurrence, as execs nervously awaited the moment crowds were let in. “It was super strict because we had to be perfect, we were representing Amazon. If anything touched the floor or something they would get super strict. I think they had a lot of pressure on opening, but after opening it was smooth sailing.”
A lot of the energy and focus was on the actual technology. Powering every Amazon Fresh store around a hundred cameras that follow customers and track what they select from the shelf. A combination of AI and the initial scan of your phone to get in tell the store’s massive server — somewhere in a backroom — to put what you’ve picked up into your digital basket. Duncan says “programmers” were needed on site to help with maintenance — he described them as always “super stressed”. Sometimes calibrating the technology could take hours — engineers would place an elaborate series of squares on the floor to get the cameras properly lined up — and shelves needed to be stacked precisely. Duncan remembered the occasional mishap that would wipe his and his team’s progress stacking a shelf, and then calling in a repair team to help start again.
After a couple of months at the store, Duncan eventually moved on to other jobs in London. But he is glad to have worked there. “It was a really good experience. Now that I have Amazon Fresh on my CV, it pops up a lot for companies on LinkedIn, and websites like that. Companies see my experience and I've gotten better wages offered to me and better jobs, because I have that experience.”
In fact, speaking with Duncan, you almost detect a bit of guilt, given Amazon’s sometimes negative reputation for working conditions. He says that he at least didn’t experience any gruelling, target-based work, and he remembers his manager fondly as an easygoing “geezer”.
“You often read in the news that the workers aren't happy,” Duncan says. “So I was thinking if I'm also getting paid more than a warehouse worker, that would make them even more unhappy, because I've never done years of Amazon fulfilment centre work. I'm just joining their new stores as a retail associate and I'm gonna get paid more.”
So Duncan at least is disappointed to hear Amazon Fresh stores may be closing. Some analysts think the rollout has so far shown Londoners just aren’t interested in the ‘just walk out’ tech and are instead prioritising value-for-money. There are now rumours Amazon is mulling an acquisition of online retailer Ocado to shore up its position in the UK, though Amazon hasn’t commented.
That might be necessary for Amazon Fresh’s survival though, according to Martin Heubel. “Without an acquisition and given the high cost of running the existing sites without a significant return in sales, I expect physical Fresh stores to disappear over the next 12 to 18 months and Amazon to refocus on its online grocery offering instead,” he says.
Speaking to the Spy, a spokesperson for Amazon disputed parts of Duncan’s recollections, including the presence of programmers on site and the technological mishaps. They also emphasised more of its Amazon Fresh stores are actually getting tills to give customers more options than the ‘just walk out’ technology.
The company also said when it announced the recent store closures: "Like any physical retailer, we periodically assess our portfolio of stores and make optimisation decisions along the way.
"While we decided to close three Amazon Fresh stores, it doesn't mean we won't grow — this year, we will open new Amazon Fresh stores to better serve customers in the greater London area."
It added it was "committed to our investment in grocery and, as we grow, we'll continue to learn which locations and features resonate most with customers".
*Name changed to protect identity
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