At 8 p.m. one evening earlier this week, on a dark university campus with no option for grabbing a snack after studying into the night, Wei Li, a junior majoring in computer science at Hefei University, saw a glimpse of the future of retail.
Parked in a big open square on campus was a vehicle resembling a bus. Through its floor-to-ceiling glass front, shelves could be seen stacked with red boxes.
At the entrance, Wei Li scanned a QR code using his iPhone. A glass door slid open, and he stepped inside a store with no checkout and no staff.
A holographic human face with a calm expression and neatly cut bangs greeted him. There was no sound, just a move of the face from one side to another. Li said he was impressed by the range of products sold there: fruits, potato chips, coffee, magazines, and even sneakers, each with a bar code on the package. He liked the ease with which he could buy things: all he needed to do was scan the bar code using a smartphone app with his banking card information registered in it. As he approached the exit, another glass door slid open automatically to let him out.
This was Moby Store, launched by Wheelys, a Stockholm-headquartered crowdfunded startup. Originally focused on making cafés that can be moved from one spot to the next by bike, the company is now testing out a model of a 24-hour store run entirely by technology.
Its test site is located on the campus of Hefei University, about 450 kilometers west of Shanghai, where Wheelys is working with professors on the technology backbone for the stores.
Li, who is not working on that research, saw the vehicle as he walked across campus with a friend and decided to have a try. He did have questions about how the store can handle many people shopping at the same time, and how they will avoid shoplifting. “There is a huge flow of people right after classes,” says Li, 22.
Unlike the taxi and hotel industries, which are being changed in China as they are around the world by ride- and home-sharing companies such as Uber and Airbnb, brick-and-mortar retail has yet to undergo significant technology-driven change. Amazon, which announced today that it is buying upscale U.S. grocery store chain Whole Foods in a deal valued at $13.7 billion, is testing a similar clerk-free shopping concept at its Amazon Go store for Seattle employees (see “Amazon’s Grocery Store Doesn’t Have a Single Checkout”).
The Wheelys cofounders decided to test in China rather than Sweden in part because of China’s large population, but even more so because of the country’s near-ubiquitous adoption of paying with your phone. Some 60 percent of the 175 million transactions per day processed by Chinese online payment app Alipay in 2016 were done through a mobile phone, according to the Better Than Cash Alliance.
Coupled with rising rents and wages in many places, it is becoming more expensive to maintain small stores. Bo Wu, who oversees the Wheelys operations in Shanghai, says he has received many inquiries from big supermarket owners looking to gain a competitive edge by becoming staffless.