Building off the popularity of mobile payments in China, startups like BingoBox and the F5 Future Store combine robotics and mobile apps to open human-free convenience stores.
US experiments in cashier-free retail — namely, Amazon’s beta launch of the automated Amazon Go store in Seattle last year — have so far largely floundered.
In China, however, a number of venture-backed startups have already rolled out fully automated convenience stores, which push customers to scan smartphone apps to enter the store, pay, and exit, eliminating the need for human store employees.
With automatic doors that only open when shoppers scan their phones, these stores aim to identify every person who enters the store and prevent theft. Many leverage AI to track inventory and automate shipments of products in need of restocking, while several also use a franchise model and emphasize their low startup costs for store owners (in comparison to the cost of opening a traditional, human-staffed store).
Supported by China’s widely adopted mobile payment platforms — and buoyed by recent investments from Alibaba and other retail leaders focused on automating checkout processes in brick-and-mortar stores— China’s unmanned retail sector is heating up.
As the timeline below highlights, the number of first fundings to unmanned retail startups has picked up significantly in 2017, and gained even more momentum in the second half of the year.