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Saha Group to open first unmanned store in Thailand

Conglomerate embraces new technologies with aim to open more next year

After picking up the items, customers have to pay what they owe at the payment stations before leaving the store. (Photo by Rie Ishii)

BANGKOK -- Thai consumer products manufacturer Saha Group plans to open the first unmanned store in the country by October.

Group Chairman Boonsithi Chokwatana said his company will invest in new technologies including artificial intelligence and internet of things as well as big data analysis to attract young consumers.

"It's a must. We still need to invest more in order to respond to the new demand of new generations," the 81-year old tycoon told the Nikkei Asian Review, adding he wants to transform a traditional retail store into an unmanned store that uses technologies and digitalization.

In China where the number of unstaffed stores has increased rapidly, some analysts say the boom is already over. Chinese tech companies including e-commerce conglomerate Alibaba Group Holding opened more than 200 unmanned stores in the span of around two years but many of those stores have since gone out of business. Yet, Saha sees opportunities in Southeast Asia, where the middle class is growing.

Saha's first unmanned store will be opened under the brand "His & Her" offering around 300 items, including cheap products such as instant noodles, lingerie and T-shirts to branded clothes, in 100 sq. meters operated by ICC International, a retail arm of the group.

The company has invested around 10 million baht ($330,000) in technologies such as facial recognition systems, QR code readers and radio frequency identification tags to replace its human workforce. In addition, the company will install multiple payment systems so that the store can also be cashless.

ICC plans to spend another 50 million baht to set up new servers, applications and big data systems to help analyze shoppers' behaviors and needs.

"We plan to debut the unmanned store by October," said Surat Wong, vice president of ICC information & technology division, adding that the company will evaluate initial sales results of the store and would expand further by next year.

Customers pay the total sum of the goods at the single payment station before leaving the store. "If the payment doesn't match the bill, the doors will not open," said Surat.

The company expects to earn around 760,000 baht per month at the unmanned store, only 5% lower than the average monthly sales of 80 existing manned "His & Her" stores in Bangkok and other major cities nationwide.  "Unmanned stores in China have a lot of vending machines with limited items, mostly small items like cigarettes or food. We intend to offer more with the backing of technology," Surat said. 

An analyst at Kasikorn Research Center said that Thais may take a while to get used to the idea. "We have expected that unmanned shop is coming quite soon [to Thailand]. However, we don't expect to see many unmanned shops over the next few years as Thai people would need a certain long time to adapt themselves with technology," said the analyst who did not want to be named. 

Surat also admitted there were challenges ahead, given the Chinese experience but said that Saha will offer something different. 

"Our business model is different from what happened in China, where the store had several boring vending machines containing limited merchandise," said Surat.

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