The humanless retail experience is fast becoming an everyday reality in the food arena.
In early 2017, a Swedish startup named Wheelys launched an unmanned “convenience store on wheels” in Shanghai to demonstrate what humanless retail experiences could look like. Though it garnered plenty of global media coverage, in China the humanless retail experience is fast becoming an everyday reality — especially in the food space.
On the back of widespread use of mobile payments and growing government interest in investing in AI technologies, small and large tech companies alike have launched a plethora of variations on the humanless experience, mediated by robots, cameras and QR codes. Consider, for example, the cashierless and automated shop. At a recent retail hackathon, hosted in Beijing by international confectionary brand Mars Wrigley, over half the participating startups were pitching various technologies and business models for automated retail experiences.
While Amazon Go in the US envisions a premium experience, Chinese companies are experimenting with everything from micro “box” shops selling packaged foods on college campuses to walk-in shops selling fresh produce in shopping malls. China is a fertile place for these types of shops due to its high smartphone penetration, ubiquitous mobile-payment services, high-population density and growing numbers of urban commuters who value convenience and efficiency.
Restaurant chains such as KFC and Pizza Hut are testing and showcasing their versions of these retail concepts, too, using cute robots as customer interfaces to guide people to their tables and take payments using facial-recognition technology. Alibaba has also repurposed its warehouse robots to wait on tables in the dining area of its Hema supermarkets.
However, for restaurants, perhaps the biggest change is the increasing adoption of digital menus and ordering systems. WeChat, China’s ubiquitous all-in-one messenger app, now hosts a number of “mini-programs” that are built into the app. These mini-programs are so user-friendly that many restaurants have replaced their paper menus with them, sticking a QR code on each table which customers scan with their phones, eliminating the need for waiters.
This is a 12-part series on Food Megacity: how urbanization and technology are changing the way China eats. The full series can be found here.