Where Amazon is cautiously taking baby steps to conquer retail, retailers in China are doing so with leaps and bounds. During our latest visit to Shanghai, we observed the introduction of 'Auchan Minute Stores', a cooperation between supermarket giant Auchan and Tencent. On the car park of one of their hypermarkets, a converted sea container has been designed as a small store in which the most commonly sold items are available. Crisps, drinks and noodles. Ideal if you're peckish during the evening/night and your supermarket is closed. Entrance is simple, you login using your Alipay QR code so that the store knows who is inside, you collect and scan the articles you require, pay via your smartphone and head back out. The articles you have scanned are recognised by the detection gates, enabling you to simply walk out. Failure to pay will result in an alarm being sounded. No store staff are required therefore, until the shelves need to be restocked. The store itself gives a notification when stocks are running low, after which a shelf filler can restock it.
Whereas Amazon Go has opened 12 branches, Auchan Minute has 750 so far. Competitor BingoBox also has 500 stores by now, using the same model and concept (in fact, they assisted Auchan in developing the Minute Stores, before splitting on not the best of terms). However, BingoBox has deployed technology that can be used by anyone paying them for a licence. There is enormous growth potential therefore, certainly also for smaller retail chains (in large cities) looking to reduce personnel costs.
A further experiment is TMall in shopping centres, via BIU. These unmanned stores are focused on sport and fashion. This is a very expensive form however, and the stores we visited were all either closed or 'out of order', making life difficult.
Possibly the most interesting and also most futuristic concept heading our way is Wheelys Moby Mart. Wheely uses more or less the same technology as Auchan Minute but combines it with autonomous driving technology. It is therefore actually an autonomously driving supermarket that you can call to your door via your app.
You then only need to step on board, do your shopping and check out again. Wheely can be called to you any time of the day or night and at any location. The technology is currently being tested in Shanghai. The autonomously driving part of Wheely is as yet problematic, though this is due to the same problems currently troubling any autonomously driving vehicle. Improved recognition technology and future legislation will certainly provide a solution to these problems, though it is doubtful whether this will be in time for Wheely.
The idea of autonomously driving stores coming to you, whenever you want, is not as crazy as it might sound. It would allow a very interesting mix, especially if the technology of the unmanned stores continues to develop at such a pace. It is as yet too early for innovative retailers to jump on this particular bandwagon, but we will continue to monitor it.
The unmanned store, on the other hand, may soon really take off. The technology is certainly advanced enough and it is ideally suited to our 24/7 society, without the store personnel becoming a limiting factor. Virtual assistants and remote assistance can provide the same service experience we are now increasingly encountering in online stores. The pros and cons will need to be determined per branch, but this is certainly a next step in fast service for the food branch.
Do you want to know more about this trend? Then you should contact Dirk van Eunen, email@example.com or +31 (0)252 750275.