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Robotic Convenience Stores Aim to Change Retail

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Convenience stores in East Asia have always been known for their vast selection of food and drinks, ubiquitous locations, and cleanliness. Now, it looks like they’ll also be known for their lack of employees. F5 Future Store, with its 35-square-meter pilot store in Guangzhou, China, has just received additional funding from venture capital firms and aims to open 30 to 50 stores in the next six months, according to Caixin.

F5’s store in Guangzhou contains two counters for food, a drink machine, and a self-cleaning dining table. Customers can order and pay for items either at a special terminal or with their smart phones, and then simply walk in to the store and receive their goods within one minute. In fact, both the retrieval of goods and the cleaning of tables is performed by robotic arms.

However, it’s not just F5 that is helping proliferate such convenience stores – French supermarket chain Auchan has also launched an unmanned convenience store in Shanghai.

Further, Amazon made waves recently by revealing its Amazon Go concept, in which shoppers can enter a store, pick up their items, and then leave without interacting with anyone. Other large retailers such as Walmart, Lawson, and 7-Eleven are testing functionality that allows users to shop for goods via a smart phone app and then pick up their purchases at a nearby store.

While the convenience of being able to walk into a store, pick up what you want, and then leave is appealing to many, theft remains a huge concern. For instance, China Resources Vanguard, a supermarket chain, ran an unmanned store in Hangzhou, China, for just one day in June 2016, and ended up losing ¥3,000 in goods to shoplifters, according to Beijing Business Today.

Thus, there are still many kinks to work out before such technology becomes commonplace, not to mention the fact that the cost of the technology will have to be reduced. But while it is almost certain that the cost of such technology will come down in the future, and that we will more than likely come up with new ways to more efficiently combat theft, one concern that does not seem to be discussed much is the social consequences of moving toward unmanned stores.

Specifically, what are we saying about ourselves and our societies if we seem to prefer avoiding contact with other people? While it is true that we are unlikely to get into conversations about the history of extinct mammals in Australia, 18th century German literature, or deep philosophical debates about the nature of the universe with convenience store clerks and customers we run into, we appear to be moving toward a future in which a life of isolation and loneliness becomes our modus operandi. If we really do prefer to not interact with other people, doesn’t this mean we are losing a bit of our humanity, since interacting with others is a crucial part of life on Earth?

I pose the above questions not as an opponent of unmanned convenience stores or the technologies that make such stores possible, but rather, as an ardent supporter of technology and the promise it holds for all people on this planet. In fact, I must admit I felt a tinge of excitement after reading about F5 Future Store and could not wait to check it out. But although much is being said of the economic consequences of technology, I believe one area that is not being discussed enough is the social implications. Thus, we would do well to consider the social aspects of technological progress, since without a personal touch, life would be too predictable and quite boring, not to mention not as fulfilling, since deep personal interactions make life much more beautiful.

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