Unmanned stores: Michael Agnew checks out the first staffless convenience store in Singapore
Much hype was made earlier this year when Amazon unveiled its Amazon Go concept store, promising hyper convenient retail with no checkouts and minimal staff – visitors to the store scan into the shop using their Amazon app. The technology then automatically detects when products are taken off shelves and they are placed in a virtual cart. Customers are able to ‘just walk out’ of the store and be automatically charged for their purchases without any manual input.
Despite the Amazon Go concept being one of the first theoretical completely checkout-free stores unveiled, retailers across China, Korea and Japan have been some of the first to put both cashier-free and unmanned stores into practice, in the real world. Widespread adoption of mobile payments in China have allowed for stores to be entirely built around mobile functionality, while retailers in Japan are working to address the country’s diminishing workforce. Of course, reducing staffing costs is a motivation for companies adopting automation processes across all sectors; in our De-Pop! trend we found that two in five millennials globally think their current job could be done by robots or artificial intelligence in 10 years time or less.
Never a place to lag far behind where innovation is concerned, last month saw the first unmanned convenience store to open in Singapore, launched by NTUC Fairprice under the Cheers retail brand. I decided to check it out and see whether this really represents retail of the future.
Entering the store
To get in the store, visitors download the Shop it Yourself app and sign up with your national identity number. This generates a barcode which you scan to enter the store – although naturally, a bunch of other shoppers followed in after me as I opened the door, without scanning in.
Needing an app signals an obvious drawback for widescale adoption by other retailers. Having to download multiple store specific apps is one hurdle they would need to get over, as shoppers aren’t going to want to clog up their phones.
One of the theories behind unmanned stores is that employees are freed up to focus on ensuring optimal stock and supply. Cheers have clearly been analysing shopping habits and had a neat display showing the most popular items and combinations of sales, which presumably feeds back into how merchandise is displayed. But I can’t go any further without mentioning the PIZZA VENDING MACHINE. Just one of three hot meal vending options on offer in store. Taste test to follow.
The checkout process resembled other self-service checkouts, though without a bag weighing feature, limiting the need for human interjection when an inevitable basket item isn’t recognised.
Other than friendly reminders to pay and security cameras, the store seems light on security measures. For those who have scanned in with their national identity number there is a clear record of visiting the shop – but for those who manage to get in without, you don’t need to scan to exit either, you simply press a button to leave.
China’s Bingobox and 7-Eleven in South Korea have used RFID tagged merchandise to overcome the risk of shoplifting, but this comes with its own associated costs which need to be balanced with the reduction in staff costs.
Is this the store of the future?
Yes, in all likelihood. The experience was easy, frictionless and honestly, I barely noticed the lack of staff. However, it would be comforting to know that someone was nearby if something did go wrong. In comparison to the West, Asia has always been more receptive to technology and home to the largest markets for global robot sales. However, anti-automation sentiment may be on the rise with South Korea implementing a “robot tax”, limiting financial incentives for businesses that are looking toward automation, in order to fund welfare for the unemployed. Meanwhile India’s transport minister has vowed to ban driverless cars in order to protect jobs. Will this sentiment be a long term barrier to staff free retail? Unlikely, the robots are coming!