The phenomenon of staff-less stores is rapidly expanding in China. China made it, ahead in technology and fast development
Look at this Store… Crazy
In China , I witnessed one of the 50 compact, 20-square-meter units, resembling shipping containers, launched this year by Chinese startup Xiao Maipu. Detected by one of the many surveillance cameras inside, I quickly had to put away my camera and leave amid a flurry of Mandarin admonishments. These giant vending machines of products are closely guarded by companies due to the highly competitive nature of the industry.
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Auchan leading Company in China
Four key players are eyeing this market segment: high-tech firms like Hisense selling technology to third parties, brick & mortar retailers like Auchan Retail China
- April Gourmet using these technologies, e-commerce giants like JD.com,
- startups like Xiao Maipu developing and operating their own boxes.
- This market landscape is richer than in the West, where Amazon currently leads with its Amazon Go no-staff stores.
In China, the convenience of smartphone integration is paramount. To enter these retail spaces, customers must present a WeChat QR code, and payment is also processed through mobile apps like WeChat Pay.
Companies like April Gourmet allow customers to scan product QR codes and pay via the WeChat Pay app, while Auchan Minute customers use an automated checkout and also pay via WeChat Pay. In JD.com’s unmanned stores, overhead cameras and shelf weight sensors automatically charge the customer’s JD.com account for items taken.
The few staff members working in these stores primarily restock shelves and monitor surveillance footage remotely.
Louis Laurent, a manager of a Shanghai hypermarket, supervises eight Auchan Minute stores, with only two employees overseeing them, highlighting the labor-cost savings in these automated setups.
A new distribution business model
These stores are seen as potentially more cost-effective than traditional convenience stores, especially in high-traffic urban areas. The sector’s attractiveness is bolstered by the 7.4% growth in Chinese convenience store sales from 2017 to 2024, as reported by Bain & Company.
Auchan and Xiao Maipu’s standardized container stores allow for rapid deployment – just set up the unit, connect utilities, and it’s operational.
Beyond standardized container stores, companies like April Gourmet are experimenting with larger, more diverse staff-less stores. For instance, April Gourmet’s store in Beijing’s Damei Central Plaza, almost 140 square meters in size, focuses on imported products. Auchan Minute stores currently offer a uniform assortment of 500 products, but plans are underway to allow store managers to select from seven types of assortments tailored to specific locations.
Despite the higher prices compared to hypermarkets, the average spend per customer in these stores remains low. However, the staff-less store model is considered potentially lucrative, with JD.com’s futuristic X-Mart stores expected to become profitable within six months of opening. The company plans to open 100 such stores in China this year and may later sell this technology to other retailers, similar to Hisense’s approach with Auchan.
As this technology evolves, companies are continually refining aspects like facial recognition to enhance the shopping experience in these innovative retail environments.
It is a revolution of distribution isn’t it ?