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China and Japan try cashier-free stores -- for different reasons

An e-retail boom and labor shortages have retailers cutting down on human staff

A customer chooses items at an automated F5 Future Store in Guangzhou.

GUANGZHOU/TOKYO Asia's two biggest economies, China and Japan, are different in many respects, but two things they have in common are large numbers of convenience stores and an enthusiasm for automation. Not surprisingly, both countries are combining the two, moving toward a convenience store industry that is largely automated, with little or no human staff.

Yet the two countries are doing this for different reasons. In China, the spread of cashier-free shops comes in the context of an online retailing boom, while in Japan, the industry is seeking ways to cope with a worsening labor shortage.

Automated stores require almost no payroll and less space. Streamlined product lineups make shopping less stressful, while the use of digital payments eliminates the risk of counterfeit cash being used.

At an F5 Future Store in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, items are not stocked on shelves for customers to browse. Instead, shoppers choose what they want from touch panels on the walls.

These touch panels list around 100 items, including drinks, snacks and light meals. The customer chooses an item, then uses his or her smartphone to scan the bar code that appears on the screen. Payment is made via a digital wallet, and the purchase arrives automatically from a back room. It takes about three minutes to ring up the total and deliver the items.

"There are not many options, but I don't have to wait in line for the register," said a 40-year-old homemaker who lives nearby.

F5 Future Store debuted in 2014 and began expanding at the end of 2016, according to the operator of the chain. The company runs five locations in Guangzhou and Shenzhen, and targets 100 in the near term.

China has about 100,000 convenience stores nationwide, concentrated in major cities. Privately run shops dominate the rest of the country, making it a potential untapped market for automated mini-marts. The market for such retail outlets is expected to grow to 950 billion yuan ($146 billion) in 2022, from just 10 billion yuan in 2017, according to one Chinese research company.

BingoBox, another chain of unstaffed shops, has about 200 outlets, mainly in Shanghai. Customers typically verify their identities through their WeChat accounts and pay via Alibaba Group Holding's Alipay.

Major companies are also getting into the game. In August, retail giant Suning Holdings Group opened its first automated Biu apparel store in Jiangsu Province. The chain had grown to five as of November, with locations in Shanghai, Chongqing and elsewhere.

PART-TIME PUT-OFF Japan has not gone as far in automating its stores. But even the nation's top chains are seeking ways to improve efficiency to adapt to the labor shortage. Potential part-time workers are put off by conditions such as late-night shifts.

Ministop is testing partial self-service checkout services.

Ministop, the fourth-largest convenience store operator, will introduce partial self-service checkout at its stores. While the clerk scans and bags items, the customer selects a payment method on a touch screen and pays the total, reducing checkout time by as much as 30%.

Ministop, which has strong offerings of freshly cooked snacks and desserts made in-house, is testing the system at stores in the Kanto region, which includes Tokyo. It plans a full rollout from the second half of fiscal 2018, with all of its more than 2,200 locations covered by the following year.

The plan is to have several checkout units per store, with a single clerk potentially covering two units at the same time. The system, which will enforce age restrictions on items such as alcohol and cigarettes, will require an investment of about 1.5 billion yen ($13.2 million).

Japan's third-ranked convenience store chain, Lawson, will experiment with a self-checkout system using smartphones at some Tokyo stores this spring.

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