Formally launched in 2016, BingoBox now has over 200 shops in 29 cities in China that sell snacks, beverages, and other items, according to a company spokesperson.

Dozens of other startups have emerged in the past year launching similar or identical concepts. According to data aggregator ITJuzi, in the third quarter of 2017 alone, China’s cashier-less stores sector attracted 1 billion yuan (about $156 million) in funding.

Some of these business are even simpler than BingoBox. F5 Future Store, headquartered in Guangzhou, is a cashier-less shop that lets users buy snacks and small meals. While it’s an enclosed space with no humans on the watch, it’s more like a glorified vending machine than an unmanned store. Users select food on a touchscreen, make a payment through WeChat, and a snack pops out from a chute. There’s also a “self-cleaning” table. F5’s venture backers include Sinovation Ventures, an AI-centric fund founded by machine learning expert Kaifu Lee, the former head of Google China.

China’s internet giants have also made forays into cashier-less stores. Last month JD, one of the country’s largest e-commerce companies, announced a partnership with property developer China Overseas Land & Investment to roll out hundreds of stores that combine facial recognition, QR codes, and RFID to eliminate checkout and boost data analytics (there are five so far). Last week in Shanghai, social media giant Tencent opened a pop-up store in partnership with EasyGo, another venture-backed startup focused on cashier-less stores, where customers could purchase WeChat-themed merchandise. While e-commerce powerhouse Alibaba Group has yet to launch a genuine unmanned store, last summer its Taobao business launched Tao Cafe, a pop-up outlet that was cashier-less but still staffed with human baristas.

WeChat’s unmanned store in Shanghai.
WeChat’s unmanned store in Shanghai.
Image: WeChat

China’s wave of “unmanned” outlets includes more than shopping. Cashier-less restaurants, karaoke booths, and mini-gyms have also spread across the country. Like the stores, these outlets are relatively low-tech, enabling payments using WeChat or its ilk. But as a whole, the rapid emergence of all-things “unmanned” in China shows how quickly the country’s tech companies will jump on a new trend—at times, much faster than their stateside counterparts.

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