Panoringan: Amazon Fresh 101 – A Comprehensive Guide to OC’s Tech-Savvy Grocery Store

ANNE MARIE PANORINGAN, Voice of OC

Amazon Fresh has opened a new location in the former Babies R Us at Irvine Market Place off Jamboree.

Anne Marie Panoringan

Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for 8 years at OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and industry professionals for her weekly On the Line column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show. She can be found on Instagram Stories as @brekkiefan.

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Amazon Fresh opened its second California location to the public on October 22, 2020 in a former Babies R Us retail space at Irvine Market Place. The first launched in Woodland Hills in early September.

The Amazon Fresh concept takes the grocery store experience to the next level.  Amazon members can shop for their food and leave the store without having to go wait in a register line.

Since May, this store operated as a drive-up location for those utilizing Amazon’s 1-hour Prime grocery option, and is the 2-hour delivery hub for the area. Forthcoming Fresh openings include Fullerton, Long Beach and Cerritos in former Toys R Us or Babies R Us outlets.

Wondering if a visit is worth your time? As of this article, I would’ve shopped there on five separate occasions. Here are the details you should know to assist with your decision-making.

How It Compares to Whole Foods Market

Amazon owns Whole Foods and offers discounts to Amazon members at the high-end, organic food-focused grocery store.  Differences between Fresh and Whole Foods include the option to browse many non-organic brands and produce, plus Alexa devices in every aisle. For the unfamiliar, Amazon’s Alexa is an interactive virtual assistant which responds to questions about the location of products, recipe advice, and even the weather.

One more notable detail is how Amazon Fresh only accepts Amazon coupons, while Whole Foods takes coupons from manufacturers. Still itching to stop by? Then it’s time to clarify the cons and pros to going, including the fancy cart and store layout.

Reasons Why You Wouldn’t Go

If you are not an Amazon account holder, then shopping here would essentially be like any other supermarket run, but more crowded due to its shiny new status. I haven’t seen this kind of excitement since Whole Foods Market introduced its Disney-esque layout over in The District at Tustin Legacy.

Also, if you are picking up more than two grocery bag’s worth of items, it is impractical to shop there. The high-tech shopping cart, called the Dash cart, is what sets this store apart from your traditional grocery store and it has limited capacity. As a result, customers are restricted in how much inventory they can load into one. If you need to do a more substantial shopping trip (or you do not have an Amazon account), they provide a standard-sized cart to roll through the aisles, which means you have to proceed through the usual checkout line. But where is the fun in that?

Using the Dash Cart

Peak grocery times have two lines to enter the store: one is for regular cart users, and the other for Dash carts. If choosing the Dash line, make sure your phone not only has the Amazon app installed, but check that your default credit card is the one you prefer groceries charged to.

Once inside, an employee will give a brief tutorial. They’ll first guide you to open the app and locate a QR (quick response) code specific to your account. It is the same type of code many restaurants now use in lieu of menus. After your cart scans the QR code, it is ready to use.

ANNE MARIE PANORINGAN, Voice of OC

Amazon Fresh Dash carts are the high-tech alternative to standard shopping carts.

A quartet of sensors line the inside perimeter of your cart. When you reach for a product and place it into a bag (each cart is already equipped with two free paper bags), the sensors swiftly scan for barcodes. After an audible tone, an image of the chosen item, corresponding description, and price appear on a small display in front of the cart handle. Change your mind? Dash cart will deduct an item if it’s removed.

ANNE MARIE PANORINGAN, Voice of OC

Amazon Fresh Dash carts are equipped with a computer display which shows items scanned, plus shopping lists previously saved on your Amazon device.

The only area of the store where this scanning method changes is in produce. Every vegetable and fruit sign includes a PLU (price look-up) code unique to that item. Prior to reaching for any produce, first touch the PLU button. This will prompt a keypad screen where you’ll input the code. It will verify your item, then ask to confirm the quantity. If it is sold by weight, no problem. Dash has a built-in scale!

Two of Dash cart’s fanciest features incorporate a user’s home devices, whether it’s an Amazon Echo, Show, Spot or Dot. If customers previously created a shopping list on a device, scanning your QR when you start using Dash cart will upload this list to the display, thanks to your Amazon or Alexa app. The second feature builds upon the first, matching products to the specific aisle(s) where they can be found. In theory, shoppers can locate what they need and “check” it off their list without needing to ask for assistance.

Carts include phone/cupholders, but no space to place other personal items, as the small basket closest to the handle is taken up by Dash’s display. To make up for it, there are dual hooks for a purse or jacket. For the best reason to use Dash, read ahead to the Payment and Customer Service section.

Navigating AF’s Layout

For the most part, the aisles at Amazon Fresh are categorized along the same lines as your local grocery store. A few notable exceptions include the cheese selection along the back wall. In most supermarkets, the pricier cheeses are grouped with similar high-end deli products. Here, a wedge of La Bonne Vie Double Creme brie is in the same section as Kraft American singles. Cleverly placing water and wine in the same aisle seems like an inside Biblical joke. All things bread and pastry are situated along the wall beyond the furthest checkout stand. While we’re on the subject of carbs, their fresh baguettes are under a buck, making them a frugal complement to your bottle of pinot and some brie.

While more inventory-related than layout, I discovered Clorox disinfecting wipes each time I visited the aisle containing cleaning products. It was a welcome sight, as many standard grocery stores still have consistently empty shelves.

Most importantly, bathrooms are down a hallway adjacent to the cheese selections. Unfortunately, the women’s restroom is small and lacks motion sensor sinks and toilets (which during the era of COVID-19 is especially disappointing).

Even though the allure of shopping at Amazon Fresh is that you are not dependent upon employees to check out, there are still plenty of employees roaming around. They are stocking shelves, shopping to fill a customer’s online order, or monitoring order fulfillment and delivery drivers from a mobile office – a laptop on a rolling stand.

Pre-Ordering/Hot Food

Something that used to discourage me from ordering at any deli or butcher counter was waiting behind individuals who took too long to order. Here, it’s as quick as ordering ahead. Using the Amazon app, I can choose between seafood, deli meats and the butcher once I’m inside the store. After I’ve made my choices, it takes a minimum of 10 minutes before a notification is sent to collect my request. Bonus: Entire cooked pizzas are a pre-order option and a steal at $8.99.

ANNE MARIE PANORINGAN, Voice of OC

Individual pizza slices are $1.79 at Amazon Fresh.

Multitasking is the new black, since my wait time is productively spent shopping for additional items. Payment is included at checkout with the rest of my groceries.

While store hours are from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, the order ahead service is only available between 11 a.m. and 9 p.m.

Payment and Customer Service

Most of us can relate to the growing frustration of waiting in line to pay. Self-checkout kiosks are becoming more common in retail stores, but still require standing around until one is available. Now imagine checking out without having to reach for your wallet, nor let go of the cart. This is the cool, Amazon Fresh way.

A designated aisle for Dash carts is staffed upon your departure. Note: Remember to scan any Amazon coupons before heading toward checkout. Fresh employees guide you down a green tiled lane, where groceries are automatically taxed and charged to your designated method of payment. The total is shown on your display, and a receipt is promptly emailed. This purchase is also logged into your Amazon app.

Dash carts are not allowed into the parking lot, so before heading out, bags are either hand carried or transferred to a standard cart. Traditional cash registers are available for consumers opting for a non-computerized shopping experience.

ANNE MARIE PANORINGAN, Voice of OC / Voice of OC

Amazon Fresh’s service area includes lockers for package pickup and a display of branded devices.

Found in the furthest corner of the store, customer service includes a wall of Amazon lockers. Kohl’s used to be the only retailer who offered return services on behalf of Amazon. Now, shoppers can conduct many of their Amazon/Prime transactions at this one-stop shop. After the Silverado evacuations, I purchased an air purifier and had it delivered to the Amazon Fresh store for a future visit. Picking up my purchase meant pulling up a barcode on my app to scan at the lockers, and loading it into my cart.

Conclusion

When it comes to technology, the first iteration of something always makes me nervous. I tend to wait for updated versions, so designers have time to work out any kinks.

While the Amazon Fresh store concept is new, some of its ideas are not. I’m not a stranger to Amazon Prime, nor its devices. Plus its ownership of Whole Foods has provided ample opportunities to learn and test ideas, meaning Woodland Hills was its first iteration. Irvine’s much larger footprint provides its own challenges, but management has had the first store to compare it to.

I’m sold on the idea of Amazon Fresh mainly for the ease in checkout. However, this won’t prevent me from occasional Trader Joe’s, 99 Ranch and other supermarket visits for specific purchases.

In Other News…

Michelin “Discoveries” Announced Last Week

In June 2019, the Michelin Guide returned to Southern California for the first time in 10 years and bestowed its stringent rating system upon two Orange County establishments: Costa Mesa’s Hana Re and Taco Maria, both receiving one star. Five additional restaurants earned Bib Gourmand status, defined as worthwhile restaurants in their respective categories and price points. They are: Mix Mix Kitchen & Bar in Santa Ana, LSXO in Huntington Beach, Hiro Nori Ramen in Irvine, Garlic and Chives in Garden Grove, and Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen in Orange.

Restaurateurs were expecting the Michelin inspectors to return again in 2020; however, due to the pandemic, new evaluations could not be completed. Instead, the 2020 inspectors honored “Discoveries,” which were announced last week. Michelin Discoveries are restaurants showcasing “new and inspiring culinary talent.” The two Orange County recipients are:

Photo courtesy of Fable & Spirit

Fable & Spirit in Newport Beach reopened for takeout service, then outdoor dining back in May.

  • Fable & Spirit in Newport Beach is the third property for the family Coyle. Back in April, I announced its plans to reopen during the pandemic. Since September, chef David Shofner additionally planned a series of themed outdoor dinners beneath Lido Theatre’s marquee. From proprietors Darren and Jean Coyle, to bar director (and son) Drew, the family is invested in the success of its concepts. In early March, I interviewed their daughter, Ali, who is the director of wines and sommelier.
  • Old Town Tustin’s CHAAK introduced the neighborhood to Yucatan cuisine – chef Gabbi Patrick’s heritage. When restrictions loosened for in-person dining, its smart design allowed for indoor seats due to a retractable ceiling down the center of the dining room. CHAAK has come a long way since pitching the city during a planning commission meeting four years ago. If her name sounds familiar, you may be better acquainted with her original restaurant, Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen in another Old Towne . . . Orange!

BONUS: Bell’s. While not in OC, I found myself road tripping to Los Alamos for a travel piece back in spring 2018. While heading to Italy or the U.K. isn’t an option right now, having a staycation or traveling domestically is how many are keeping their sanity in a world of travel restrictions. As much as I enjoyed roaming the Santa Ynez valley, the cuisine I discovered at Bell’s was memorable enough that it still has me daydreaming about the day when I return. If you’re suffering from wanderlust, keep it relatively close to home and plan a trip to Santa Barbara County. Bell’s is also a Michelin Discovery restaurant.

ANNE MARIE PANORINGAN, Voice of OC

Sweets and refreshments from Rodeo 39’s My First Kiss Bakery and Coffee.

SoCal Restaurant Show Interview

I had the pleasure of stopping by Angel Stadium to be interviewed on the SoCal Restaurant Show in October. Over two segments, executive producer and host Andy Harris and I caught up on my coverage of spicy hot chicken concepts, Rodeo 39 in Stanton, plus a recent Airbnb trip to Malibu and Santa Barbara. You can find both podcast segments in the hyperlinked text above. I’ll be back on the air in December to discuss more current food events.

Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at [email protected]