The unmanned store concept might be rapidly gaining ground in China, but it was not until this week that Hong Kong got its first taste of this new format. Two new stores have now opened in the space of a week with both snack retailer Okashi Land and Alipay HK getting in on the act. In a market that is notoriously hesitant about using self-checkout tills, how will Hong Kongers get on with this new concept?
Okashi Land, Gala Place, Mong Kok
The Okashi Land unstaffed store is very much a trial concept, which still requires plenty of staff to make it run smoothly. While it is possible to check-in with WeChat, a member of staff then has to manually admit the customer into the store.
There is a decent range of confectionery on sale, with RFID tags sticking out of the products. A smart mirror is tucked away in the corner, but it is not immediately clear how this enhances the customer experience. Customers are given a rating on their looks, but there is no information on why this is being done.
When stepping into the checkout area, the RFID technology is very fast and accurate and there is no need to hold the product against a reader. Payment via WeChat did take several attempts to register though.
Since many of the items on sale are traditionally found in vending machines, a simpler approach could perhaps have worked better. For instance, the new automated 7-Eleven Express stores in South Korea are essentially vending machines, enabling a quicker check-out process than that currently offered by Okashi Land.
Alipay HK, Olympian City, West Kowloon
Alibaba’s Alipay has opened a 4,000 sq. ft unstaffed store in the Olympian City mall, selling fashion boutique items and clothing, including a large range of merchandise dedicated to Macau.
Check-in was slightly different than at Okashi Land, with facial recognition technology generating a QR code that allows a shopper to enter the store. However, again a store associate was needed to manually allow a customer to enter the pop-up.
The RFID technology used at check-out appeared to have some initial teething problems and items required several attempts before they were added to the basket on the screen. Naturally, payment was taken through Alipay.
Alibaba has also taken this opportunity to show off the latest in robotics technology and the pop-up serves freshly brewed coffee made by a robotic arm. It was interesting to see how this technology turned the usual 10 seconds to make a Nespresso coffee into an elaborate two-minute process.
Will the unmanned revolution catch on?
The large number of staff on hand at both unmanned stores shows that for now the technology is not so intuitive and seamless that customers can be left to their own devices. However, these are of course trial stores that are more meant to show the potential of the technology. In that respect they can be considered a success, as shoppers were happy to interact with the technology and it provided a retail experience.
The question remains though if unmanned stores are really the future of retail. Tofugear’s own research shows that consumers in Asia want to visit stores exactly because they are able to have face-to-face contact and receive recommendations. There is certainly a role for technology in stores, but it should be used as an enabler for a positive customer experience. In many instances, that will mean that the store associate will still play a central role in using these innovations to deliver on that experience.
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