Shanghai is not ready yet for cashier-less convenience stores

By Wang Han Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/17 18:08:40

Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

A new unmanned 24-hour convenience store was launched in Shanghai earlier this June by BingoBox, a chain headquartered in Guangdong Province.

However, shortly after, the self-service shop was forced to suspend its operations because of the city's escalating summer temperatures.

Temperatures inside the 15.6-square-meter all-glass facility reached 40 C despite its air conditioning system. As a result, perishables including breads, chocolates and dairy quickly went bad.

Self-service shopping has become a hot field for investors in China. BingoBox reportedly received over 100 million yuan ($14.75 million) in financing earlier this July, with its CEO claiming he would launch 5,000 branches across China within the year.

Likewise, Alibaba launched an unmanned supermarket during the second annual Taobao Maker Festival in Hangzhou. Another e-commerce giant, Jingdong (JD), also plans to open unmanned convenient stores around China.

Though self-service shopping is still in its infancy, its fast development in China has raised public concerns, primarily that, if widely applied, many employees in the retail industry will lose their jobs.

It is undeniably true that the use of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), online payment apps, big data and facial recognition programs can and will reduce the demand for human labor.

But it's still a long shot to say that unmanned shops will completely replace traditional stores.

A major drawback of unmanned shops is that customers cannot receive timely help when they encounter problems during their selection and payment process.

Currently, most self-service shops require customers to simply scan the products they intend on purchasing.

However, considering China's rapidly aging population and Shanghai's massive elderly demographics, not every customer knows how to use such technologically advanced systems.

When I first encountered a self-service machine at a supermarket in Edinburgh, the UK, I didn't know how to use the system; it took me time to understand the English instructions.

I started feeling anxious as there were other customers lining behind me. Fortunately, live staff members were on hand to help.

Another concern of unmanned shops is shoplifting. In 2015 an unmanned supermarket in Beijing was shut down after just one day of trial operation.

The reason? A majority of "customers" were walking out with armfuls of products without paying.

China still has a long way to go before its shared economy ceases to be plagued with theft and vandalism. With 70 million unprivileged citizens, according to official figures, it's probably not an ideal time to advocate social responsibility.

Take all the recent news about Mobike vandalism and public toilet paper theft as prime examples that the general public still cannot be trusted.

It is uncertain just how efficient an unmanned store can be. With over 25 million people living in Shanghai, stores often see long queues.

Human cashiers are well trained to handle long lines and frequent demands and complaints.

But without a professional on hand, we can safely predict that the average Chinese shopper won't handle the situation well.

China has overtaken the US to lead the world in publishing academic journal articles on deep learning, a sub-discipline of AI.

According to multiple news sources, the most influential Chinese tech and business leaders have been encouraging the government to draft policies on AI.

Baidu, for example, has called on Beijing to craft a national-level regulatory framework and offer incentives to fuel AI in various industries.

AI and other unmanned services might currently be fashionable and popular among tech companies and venture capitalists, but the actual condition of Chinese society prevents such innovations from being feasible.

Really, retail is the wrong place to start with self-service; there are far better training grounds where innovators can test their tech.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Times.


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