The first automated stores appeared in China in 2016, and predictions stated that the autonomous retail sector would grow to $7.1 billion by 2020. However, the initial concept wasn’t hugely successful.
By mid-2017, profits were down due to a lack of customer support and satisfaction.
BingoBox laid off over 80% of their employees, GoGo Xiaochao closed down, Bianlifeng acquired self-service retailer Lingwa in a rescue bid, and Xiao’e Weidian swapped its automated stores for vending machines.
Then COVID-19 struck.
Overnight, automated shopping became the safest option for consumers, and the number of unstaffed stores began to rise. By May 2020, the business registrar had registered 37.3% more unmanned retail enterprises than the year before.
Now, numerous companies are taking advantage of the demand for contactless shopping. Once again, China is leading the way in automated retail.
JD.com, China’s second-largest e-commerce platform, is a frontrunner in using automation to streamline shopping and deliveries. The brand believes that AI and robots will eventually replace humans in the retail sector.
Their automated brick and mortar stores launched in 2018, incorporating facial recognition technology and QR codes to facilitate self-service shopping. As customers shop, RFID tags keep track of products they select, and they make payments using a linked WeChat or Alipay account.
At the height of the pandemic, the brand launched its last-mile drone delivery service. This provided customers with a contactless way of receiving supplies. The service is now being expanded upon and integrated into several regions.
Despite a tough start, BingoBox is still one of the frontrunners in retail automation. Their unmanned outlets are older than Amazon GO, and they have more than 300 stores in 30 cities in China.
BingoBox’s concept is similar to JD.com, except their concept is mobile. Store owners can move from place to place, creating a pop-up shop environment.
Offering BingoBox some competition is F5 Future Store, a smart unmanned convenience store that operates 24/7. F5 Future Store utilizes artificial algorithms and machine automation to make drinks and cook meals. Additionally, all cleaning work, picking, inventory, and clearing is machine based.
Robotic arms serve customers, and separate ordering terminals for packaged consumer goods, freshly made food, and beverages streamline the process. Based in the Guangdong province, the retailer aims to open 60 more stores.
Bianlifeng’s acquisition of Lingwa was successful. By September 2019, they had over 1000 stores across Asia, with more in the pipeline.
Their stores incorporate electronic price tags that feature dynamic pricing. Prices change color as products reach their sell by date or go on sale. Customers can make payments by scanning QR codes at the unmanned sales terminals.
Unlike many other automated retailers, Bianlifeng incorporates a human element. Human staff still take care of manual duties such as serving food, restocking shelves, assisting customers, and facilitating payments.
These are just some of the many brands making headway in this sector. To date, they all follow much of the same concept.
AI, RFID tags and sensors, QR codes, biometrics, and Alipay and WeChat payment integration are all featured prominently. Robotics, such as those seen in F5 Future Stores, are also in use but are not yet the norm—with many projects still in trial phases.
As these and other disruptive technologies improve and evolve, the autonomous retail sector in China looks set to grow.
The sector is light on labor, so it’s more cost-effective and accelerates the omnichannel shopping experience dramatically. Plus, it allows retailers real-time access to customer data and behavior. In keeping with data policies and regulations, consumers agree to data collection. This gives retailers access to a wealth of information that allows them to improve inventory and product offerings.
There’s no denying that automated stores in Asia are changing the way people shop. Bridging the gap between online and brick and mortar retailers has long been a challenge, but China has found a way to do just that.