The future of grocery shopping has arrived in China

A human-less experience.
A human-less experience.
Image: Clark Young/Unsplash
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A little more than a year ago, Amazon announced a new grocery store concept that promised customers a human-less shopping experience. Customers would simply walk in, grab the items they need, and leave without waiting in a line or going through a checkout—letting sensors, computer vision, and machine learning quietly do all the work to capture, calculate, and charge you for your purchases.

With much fanfare, Amazon opened a trial store in Seattle. Then, headlines went quiet as the company hit unexpected technical challenges, according to the Wall Street Journal (paywall). Last month, speculation of Amazon Go’s rollout reignited when the company began hiring store-related personnel.

But Amazon’s rival JD.com, the second biggest online retailer in China after Alibaba, has already beaten it to the punch. JD announced that, in partnership with Hong Kong real estate developer China Overseas Land & Investment Ltd, it plans to open hundreds of unmanned convenience stores with technology reportedly more advanced than Amazon’s. Its trial shops have already been tested by the 10,000 employees at its Beijing headquarters.

JD’s shops will use RFIDs and cameras with facial recognition and image recognition technology on the store ceilings to track each customer’s movement and product selection. As the store learns from a customer’s preferences over time, it will also begin to show personalized advertisements. The same tracking technology will also help store owners restock inventory more efficiently.

In addition to its fully integrated store concept, JD tested a second shop model that uses low-cost piecemeal technology solutions, such as smart shelving tools, that will allow existing stores to upgrade and increase the efficiency of their operations.

The company said that all of its technology will eventually be licensed to third-party retailers.

“These two smart-store solutions will completely change what it means to go to take a trip to the store,” said JD vice president Song Ma. “From helping small stores’ owners streamline their supply chains and increase stocking efficiency, to speeding up check out, this is a massive jump beyond anything in use today.”

Whereas Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods has given the American tech giant a brick-and-mortar presence to potentially roll out its Amazon Go vision, JD will leverage COLI’s real estate resources across China to rapidly expand. The China Daily reports JD and COLI’s partnership will extend into the development of other smart city solutions, including a last-mile delivery service using driverless vehicles that follow pre-programmed routes and have secure lockers onboard.