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Lawson unveils facility to test next-generation convenience store tech using IT, AI

A man places a smartphone over an item at the "Lawson Innovation Lab" in Tokyo's Minato Ward on Dec. 4, 2017. Customers can use smartphone apps to pay for items. (Mainichi)

Convenience store operator Lawson, Inc. has unveiled to the media "Lawson Innovation Lab," an experimental facility for next-generation convenience stores using information technology (IT) and artificial intelligence (AI) for automate payments.

    In the face of workforce shortages, the company will check the feasibility of technology to automate payments at its stores and is poised to introduce a system in the spring of 2018 allowing customers to use their smartphones to make payments so that its outlets can operate without staff late at night and in the predawn hours.

    A Pepper robot is seen at the "Lawson Innovation Lab" in Tokyo's Minato Ward on Dec. 4, 2017. The robot can sense people's movements and introduce items to shoppers. (Mainichi)

    Lawson President Sadanobu Takemasu said the company intends to introduce such a high-tech system to continue around-the-clock operations at its outlets despite a scarcity of workers.

    "To cope with the workforce shortage, we'll use AI, robots and big data to increase labor productivity," Takemasu told a news conference on Dec. 4.

    The company will introduce its cashless service smartphone app, which it already uses in China, to its outlets in Japan and begin such services at a few of its stores in Tokyo in the spring of 2018.

    The system will allow only those who have installed the app on their smartphones to enter Lawson outlets from midnight to 5 a.m. when there are fewer patrons. Customers using the system are supposed to scan the application screen at the entrance to enter the store. They will then use the application to scan the barcodes of items they are buying and make online payments without going through cashiers.

    The system will allow store workers to concentrate on tasks such as setting out goods on store shelves and cleaning, thereby reducing their workload. The company is considering using LINE Pay, a payment platform offered by the LINE messaging app, among other apps for the system.

    Lawson Innovation Lab was opened in October this year to test new technologies. On Dec. 4, the company demonstrated three of those new technologies: a robot that senses a customer's movements and explains the items that the customer grabs from the shelf; a system allowing customers to automatically pay for items when they exit the shop carrying electronically tagged goods; and a face recognition function that judges the sex and age of customers to recommend products to them.

    Lawson Innovation Lab also has "Regi-Robo," a self-checkout machine that has been in testing jointly by Lawson and Panasonic Corp. at a Lawson store in Osaka Prefecture since winter 2016. The two companies reportedly intend to begin a feasibility test at a Tokyo outlet as early as this winter.

    Workforce shortages are hitting the convenience store and restaurant industries hard. Royal Holdings Co., the operator of a major restaurant chain, opened a cashless diner in Tokyo on Nov. 6, where only credit cards and e-money are accepted. Moreover, a special oven is being used at the restaurant to half-automate cooking processes. These measures have allowed the restaurant to employ fewer people than regular eateries.

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