The announcement of Amazon Go, the cashierless store concept, in late 2016, coincided with a flurry of Chinese tech companies creating their own versions of unmanned stores. For them, 2017 was a fruitful year for developing their solutions tailored to Chinese consumers, as well as in educating the market.
What’s more important behind the quick rise is that the market is ready. High smartphone penetration, ubiquitous mobile payment services, high population density, growing numbers of urban commuters who value convenience and efficiency—everything makes China a fertile land for automated shops.
In line with the rising trend, unmanned convenience store startups became the new darling for Chinese investors. At the same time, traditional convenience retail chains like Japanese convenience store giant Lawson and electronics retailer Suning are also tapping into this trend.
Similar to bike rental services which have been troubled by bike thefts and damage, the staff-less service model may easily fall victim to the same problems. But the market, as well as the regulators, are quickly adapting to the changes over 2017. “Both entrepreneurs and government are more mature. Beijing is reacting swiftly to the new innovations. The Ministry of Commerce is now drafting the new standard for this new sector,” said BingoBox CEO Cheng Zilin at TechCrunch Shanghai.
Here are ten major unmanned stores that caught our attention:
As a forerunner in the vertical, BingoBox rolled out its first “box” in Shanghai this July. The 24-hour self-service convenience retailing booth allows users to enter, pick the goods, scan their RFID tags, and pay with WeChatPay or Alipay through simple smartphone scans. It’s also trying to integrate AI technologies into its shopping experiences. The firm has received over RMB 100 million in Series A. Investors include GGV Capital, Qiming Venture Partners, and Source Code Ventures China.
Tao Café (淘咖啡)
Alibaba opened its first automated store ,Tao Café, in Hangzhou this year. After entering by scanning a QR code with their Taobao app, users can pick up physical goods and walk through a 1-meter long scanner to automatically pay for the products through Alipay.
F5 Future Store (F5未来商店)
F5 Future Store is a 24-hour smart unmanned convenience store where customers can order and pay for products at a special terminal or wirelessly with their smartphones. All cooking, brewing drinks, picking, clearing, inventory, cleaning work are done automatically by machines. The firm’s latest RMB 30 million Series B in June this year pushed its total funding to over RMB 54 million. Investors include Sinovation Ventures, Innohub Capital, and TCL Capital.
Xingbianli is a checkout-free convenience store operator engaged that places snack bars in offices. It provides drinks, biscuits, and instant noodle to office workers, and allows customers to pay via mobile payment options like WeChat Pay and Alipay.
After receiving RMB 100 million angel round in September, the startup booked another RMB 380 million Series A in November. Investors include Sequoia China, Lightspeed China Partners, China Renaissance, and Vision Plus Capital.
JD Daojia (京东到家)
JD Daojia, JD’s O2O e-commerce joint venture with delivery service Dada, launched its unmanned vending shelf solution this October, mainly targeting enterprise partners to sell snacks and dairy products. Its solutions are now available in top enterprises like Tencent, JD, DHL, and Pingan Financial Service, covering first- and second-tier cities.
Take Go is the latest effort of traditional FMCG enterprise Wahaha in tapping into the staffless store trend. The firm rolled out Take Go last February in partnership with artificial intelligence solutions provider DeepBlue Technology, which offers technical support for the stores.
Wahaha had already laid out vending machines in 2016 with an estimated investment of RMB 2 billion. It plans to open a hundred thousand new stores in the country in the next three years, and a million in ten years.
Xiaoe Weidian (小e微店)
Targeting the white collar group, Xiaoe Weidian runs smart vending stores and shelves. Launched in July 2016, the startup now operates over 5,000 stores in top-tier enterprises like Haier, 51job and Xiaomi across more than 10 cities. It claimed a daily peak transaction volume of RMB 200k. The firm just secured a RMB 200 million Series B this October.
Founded by Qunar CEO Zhuang Chenchao, Bianlifeng is a QR code and mobile payment enabled staffless stores. It tries to differentiate itself by targeting high-end customers with plans to cover central business areas in cities and sell high quality imported goods. Customers can also order merchandise online and go to pick them up at the store. It’s reported that Zhuang has invested a total of RMB 300 million in Bianlifeng.
Fxbox offers a complete solution integrating various smart technologies such as RFID, facial recognition, and image recognition. The firm has received a Series A from Cherubic Ventures at an RMB 250 million valuation. Company founder CEO Zhao Liang previously worked as CTO of video streaming site Tudou.
Xiaomai is a smart convenience store maker. It manufactures seven models of unit across themes including bakery, snacks, community activities. Units of different products are placed in different public locations like metro exits and business districts. The firm currently operates in Beijing and has received RMB 125 million in funding from Aplus Ventures this year.