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Business Trends

Fresh robot-baked bread hints at future of retail in China

Local juice company aims to turn errands into entertainment

A customer at X-24h, an automated store in Shanghai. (Photo by Daisuke Harashima)

SHANGHAI -- A Chinese company is offering a glimpse into how automated stores could evolve beyond a simple fad by spicing up otherwise dull shopping trips.

A store cryptically called X-24h opened in a busy shopping area of Shanghai late this June, with its sleek blue exterior revealing little about what was sold within.

Inside, a female attendant urged visitors to step on circular panels in front of capsule-style cases filled with such baked goods as croissants, doughnuts and sausage rolls. Scanning a 2D bar code with a smartphone opened a case.

The automated convenience store is a project of Shanghai Geant Investment Co., the company behind the Vingoo vending machines that squeeze fresh orange juice. The platform tallies which products customers pick based on weight, automatically charging them through their phones when they leave.

Behind the bread case, robots can be seen baking and packing products. Though a little pricey, with one croissant selling for 16 yuan ($2.34), the store was full of shoppers excitedly snapping photos.

Automated stores, made possible by artificial intelligence and mobile payments, are popping up all over China. But while lower labor costs help them compete with e-commerce on price, they lack the human touch that online stores can never replicate. Frequent technical glitches have also held them back.

Many of these outlets look like convenience stores on the outside. But they tend to stock cheaper, lesser-known brands that the companies want to sell instead of what consumers really want. They could easily follow the path of department stores and supermarkets that failed by not putting the customer first.

Shanghai Geant Investment is instead trying to fill a unique niche with fresh-baked bread and visual "entertainment" in the form of robots. Visitors to its store included industry players checking out the competition.

Given the popularity of e-commerce, convenience alone is not enough of a selling point for automated stores. The key to their future could lie in going the extra mile to offer a shopping experience that cannot be had anywhere else.

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