The world’s biggest retailers, such as Amazon and Alibaba, are ploughing serious investment into a new generation of staffless, seamless retail stores. Contagious head of trends Katrina Dodd discussed automated retail, which she believes is the most fascinating category of the moment.
Initially she said it looked like the future would be a death match between ecommerce and bricks and mortar; however, she believes ecommerce has acted as an enabler rather than an enemy of retail’s next giant leap into the future.
Talking about AmazonGo, which promised no lines and no check out, she said that, a year after being announced, Amazon still has given no confirmed launch date. However, in China, small staffless automated retail formats called Bingobox are up and trading with audiences.
“It’s not as slick as the AmazonGo experience,” she conceded, “but it compensates by being functional.”
Bingobox can be built to scale incredibly rapidly and mounted on wheels so that, if business is slow, it can move to an area where commerce is brisker. Currently there are 158 units up and running around China, with an aim of that increasing to 5000 in 2018. Bingobox is powered by China’s biggest social platform WeChat and has benefited from the region’s smaller households and patchy infrastructure, as well as wages and retail rent increasing.
Many competitors are doing similar things featuring facial recognition, hand pay systems and AI machine learning, working with 98% accuracy (but only when commerce is civilised).
“Everyone and their aunty wants a piece of automated retail right now,” Dodd added, discussing the launch of similar systems by Auchan, TakeGo and JD.com. She also talked about Alibaba’s Tao Café, which aims to digitise the footprints of customers to offline stores.
“Things are going to get incredibly interesting,” she continued, discussing how ecommerce still only accounts for about 15% of retail in China. “Alibaba now has its eye firmly on the final 85%.”
Retailers now have a tough decision – do they go with a new start-up or put faith in the well-established Alibaba?
“Retail is non-binary” she said, adding that this is a reflection of how people are as well. “We have to work harder and smarter to meet the incredibly diverse needs and demands of an incredibly big customer base – this is a challenge automation is helping us face, and its only just beginning to get interesting.”