Convenience stores

The return of the labor shortage leads to the rise of unstaffed convenience stores

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A man scans a QR code on his smartphone to enter an unstaffed Lawson store in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo.

Major convenience store operators are gradually increasing the number of stores with unmanned payment systems due to the resurgence of a severe labor shortage as economic activity recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Companies aim to reduce the burden on store employees by eliminating cashier duties.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

In October, Lawson’s unmanned payment store – named Lawson Go – opened in the Mitsubishi Shokuhin Co. headquarters building in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo. Customers pre-register their credit card information on a dedicated smartphone app and enter the store by scanning the app’s QR code. Artificial intelligence detects the products customers pick up based on information from overhead cameras and weight sensors on the shelves, so they pay with their registered card just as they leave the store.

The store’s sales area is about 11 square meters, about one-eighth the size of a standard store, and sells about 170 items, including rice balls, packed lunches and drinks. The store is only accessible to Mitsubishi Shokuhin employees. Store operator Lawson Inc. hopes to open more Lawson Go stores, but primarily in places where customers may be limited, such as hotels and high-rise condominiums, for the time being.

FamilyMart Co. also began operating unmanned checkout stores with a system similar to Lawson’s last March, where AI identifies product picked up. Customers pay at the automatic checkout. The company plans to expand the system to a total of 1,000 stores — including stores with systems that don’t use AI — by the end of February 2025.

Increase again?

The industry’s labor shortage has been temporarily eased by the influx of staff from restaurants and other businesses that have been forced to reduce hours or close due to the pandemic. Recently, however, an increase in economic activity and more visitors to Japan have once again made it difficult for convenience stores to find enough workers.

The proliferation of unmanned payment stores is driven by technological improvements, in addition to the shortage of workers. Lawson began experimenting with a similar store in 2020 at the Fujitsu Ltd office. at Kawasaki. After pausing large-scale introduction of the system due to the pandemic, the company forged ahead after seeing the latest performance improvements in sensors and other equipment. At the Lawson Go store, the new system can handle lightweight products weighing less than 70 grams.

While the number of convenience stores in Japan is said to have peaked at around 55,000, some believe the unmanned system will be a strong driver for opening new stores as this type can operate in a smaller area than conventional stores. .

“Small unstaffed checkout stores can be operated by a small number of people. These stores have great upside potential,” said one person from the convenience industry.