E-tag tests under way for unstaffed convenience stores in Japan

Writer: 
News Desk

TOKYO (The Japan News/ANN) - Major convenience store chains are competing to develop next-generation stores that utilise such advanced technologies as electronic tags, in a bid to reduce labour costs, resolve personnel shortages and strengthen their sales strategies.

 Lawson Inc. opened an experimental facility in October in an office building in Minato Ward, Tokyo, in cooperation with a major home electronics manufacturer. Numerous experiments have been conducted there aimed at putting the latest technologies for electronic tags into practical use.

 An employee playing the role of a customer put goods such as deli products and snacks into a shopping bag. When the employee passed through an automatic clearance gate for payment installed near the entrance of the mock store, the gate’s radio waves read information stored on the electronic tags attached to each item. Payment was made through a smartphone app, and a receipt was sent to the smartphone.

 Each electronic tag is equipped with a tiny integrated circuit (IC) chip and antenna. Unlike bar codes, there is no need to read each electronic tag one by one, or to search for where the tag is attached to each product. In some retail stores, systems using electronic tags have been introduced at cash registers.

 The new system under experiment by Lawson is far more advanced — cash registers will be removed and customers will not need to worry about the payment process. When the system is put into practical use, it will become possible to realize unmanned convenience stores with no clerks.

 A Lawson official in charge of the experimental project said: “Electronic tags can be used in a wide range of applications, such as efficient management of inventories and dissemination of information to customers. We also want to promote the benefits of introducing the system to manufacturers” that provide goods to Lawson stores.

 In December, Seven-Eleven Japan Co. will convert the convenience store inside its head office building in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, into a next-generation store. Unlike Lawson’s experimental facility, everyday customers will be able to shop at this store. Seven-Eleven is aiming to make the store one where payment at cash registers can be made more easily and simply with the help of the latest technologies.

 Seven-Eleven also hopes to advance such projects as product development by collecting big data concerning its customers, such as the frequency of their visits and records of their purchases via a smartphone app designed for the system.

 FamilyMart Co. plans to conduct experiments using electronic tags by as early as the end of 2018.

 In April this year, the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry announced a plan for a total of 100 billion electronic tags to be used at convenience stores. Under the plan, the ministry hopes that all of the about 100 billion goods annually sold at more than 50,000 stores of major convenience store chains will be attached with electronic tags by 2025.

 One hurdle to using electronic tags is their cost: currently between ¥10 and ¥20 per tag. The cost needs to be reduced to around ¥1 each because many goods sold in convenience stores are priced at around ¥100 each.

 Also, payments via smartphones make it possible for convenience store chains to collect data on the shopping records of each customer. Thus, it will become important to establish rules, mainly over how to protect customers’ personal information.