A welcome interloper? Amazon Recent opens in Seattle’s historic and altering Central District

Inside the Amazon Fresh grocery store in Seattle’s Central District. (GeekWire Photos / Mike Lewis)

To some longtime residents of Seattle’s Central District, a grocery store stocked like the one Amazon opened recently in the neighborhood wouldn’t have made any sense 30 years ago. “Back then,” said James, a 50-year-old who has spent his entire life in the district, “it was Black-owned businesses here. Black customers. The stores stocked what we needed.”

But standing outside the district’s newest supermarket, the Amazon Fresh on the corner of 23rd Avenue and Jackson Street, James noted that while this new store doesn’t carry what those long-gone ones did, maybe that’s for the best.

“This neighborhood has changed and this store reflects that change,” said James, who declined to give his last name. “Because of the way the neighborhood has changed this is a perfect fit.” 

Amazon Fresh grocery store in Seattle’s Central District.

The Amazon Fresh grocery store — the 18th such supermarket the company has opened across the country — represents the online giant’s deeper push into more fully stocked and staffed markets and into the brick-and-mortar retail sector it traditionally has competed against. 

Different than the company’s Whole Foods chain — data shows that the two companies share few grocery customers — Amazon Fresh targets younger, more cost-conscious, urban customers with discount coupons, 15-cent bananas, and $5 rotisserie chickens. 

But it also is clear that Amazon Fresh, with its artisan hot sauces, small-batch beer, high-tech carts, and palm-scanning checkout, is trying to connect with a Central District as the company sees it today and not as it once was.  

Historically, the district has been the center for Seattle’s black community. For decades, the neighborhood was affordable and among Seattle’s most diverse. Part of that was a by-product of design as racist covenants written into housing deeds for many years prevented non-whites from buying homes in many of Seattle’s northern neighborhoods.

But rapid gentrification over the past 15 years — in part brought along by the Amazon and related tech boom — has made the neighborhood wealthier and less diverse. For some, the arrival of Amazon Fresh is a continuation of that trend. And it begs a central question: Should Amazon get rewarded for efforts to solve a problem it might have helped create? 

The lineup of Dash Carts at the Amazon Fresh store in Seattle’s Central District.

For Ann Emmanuel, the answer is no. The 66-year-old has lived in the Central District for the past 10 years and is “not a big fan” of the online retail giant nor its new store in the building owned by Vulcan, the development company founded by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

She did concede that the neighborhood needed another grocery store after the departure of the beloved Red Apple, which was housed where Amazon Fresh is now located. But, she asked, did it have to be Amazon?

“I don’t plan on shopping here,” she said after checking out the store. “I was here more as a looky-loo shopper.”

Katie Garrow, deputy director of the Martin Luther King County Labor Council, said the Central District’s loss of the Red Apple was significant to the neighborhood in more ways than grocery selection– a loss that isn’t replaced by Amazon Fresh.

“For years, shoppers relied on the Red Apple market to get their groceries and the staff was like a family. Workers spent their whole careers there, because of the protection and benefits a union grocery job provides,” she said. “Sadly, we have lost this part of our community to gentrification, and good, union jobs will be replaced by a company that couldn’t care less about their workers.” 

Still, on a recent weekend, the store didn’t appear to lack for customers who drifted down the wide, fully-stocked aisles.

Marquise Brown, 44, grew up in the Central District and sees it differently. He said people he’s talked to generally seem to like Amazon’s arrival but he added that “this neighborhood is very different than it used to be.”

Amazon touts the $17.75-an-hour wages that it brought into the neighborhood when it opened the store. But local union representatives said the company should be willing to pay the same wages as unionized grocery workers. 

Garrow noted that Amazon’s pay rate and history with its lowest-paid workers hardly amount to a bragging point. 

“Amazon Fresh can be reliably counted on to be a low road employer in the grocery industry,” Grover said. “Amazon’s warehouse jobs have notoriously high turnover rates which reveal workers voting with their feet that these are bad jobs. Whether they are grocery workers, warehouse workers, drivers, or tech workers, all union members have a voice at work that goes far beyond anything that the vast majority of Amazon employees currently enjoy.”

Monty Anderson, executive secretary of the Seattle Building Trades Council, said Amazon should not brag about what it pays grocery workers until it matches the wages paid in other Seattle grocery stores. 

“We’d like all of these grocery store jobs to be family-wage and benefits jobs like Fred Meyer,” he said, adding that unionized stores pay up to $25-an-hour for the same work. “When (Amazon) meets those standards, fine.”

The Central District store represents more than Amazon expanding into new territories. 

The store will also be a place to test customer checkout technology such as the Dash Cart, which scans and bills items as they are placed in the cart. The Central District store offers Dash Carts or more traditional checkout with clerks who can directly bill a customer’s account with a QR code or palm-reading scanner.

The Central District store does lack one of the checkout amenities that made the smaller Amazon Go bodegas famous: The Just Walk Out automated checkout.

With Just Walk Out, a customer checks in upon entering the store and an array of cameras tracks both the customer and the products they grab and then automatically bills the items to the customer’s Amazon account without requiring a cashier. 

Just Walk Out is available at the other Seattle-area Amazon Fresh store in Factoria that opened in June, but not in the Central District. And as to why it isn’t featured in the Central District? 

“Our stores offer a variety of different technologies,” a spokesperson said in an email to GeekWire. 

Just Walk Out is purportedly going to be offered in a new full-size Ballard store, according to The Seattle Times. 

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