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Business trends

Automated shops spread in China as mobile payments take off

Alibaba and ride staffless wave into restaurants and beyond

A shop in Hangzhou has robots make and serve bubble tea. Its prices are a third of competitors'. (Photo by Daisuke Harashima)

HANGZHOU, China -- A retail revolution is sweeping China as companies like Alibaba Group Holding use their ubiquitous mobile payment platforms to spread unmanned systems and help brick-and mortar stores shave growing labor costs.

Workers could be seen jamming their way into a branch of Wufangzhai, a 97-year-old Chinese restaurant chain that is popular during the lunchtime rush here. But there was no sign of any staff to greet them. Instead, customers looking at their smartphones simply headed for a row of about 40 lockers after five minutes each. When they touched their phones again, the lockers popped open with their steaming hot meals inside.

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