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Digital services to reduce customer-staff contact spreading at supermarkets in Japan

A "Scan&Go" system, which enables customers to purchase items without lining up at cash registers, is seen this image provided by United Super Markets Holdings Inc.
A drive-through service to deliver items purchased online to customers waiting in their cars is seen in Saitama Prefecture in this image provided by Aeon Retail Co.

TOKYO -- Digital technology allowing customers to purchase products without lining up at cash registers is spreading among grocery stores in Japan in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Stores are working together with information technology firms to introduce payment systems using smartphones and other services that they hope will reduce congestion inside the stores while lowering contact between customers and employees.

United Super Markets Holdings Inc. (USMH) is pushing forward with a "Scan&Go" system, which enables customers to purchase items without lining up at cash registers. Customers have to download a smartphone app that the company jointly developed with Fujitsu Ltd., and scan the barcodes on items. After they press a button to make a purchase, a QR code that can be scanned at the store is shown. The transaction is automatically completed with a credit card registered through the app beforehand.

USMH conducted a test run of the system in October 2019 at stores of affiliated supermarket chain Kasumi in Ibaraki Prefecture in eastern Japan amid labor shortages. A spokesperson says the company has decided to introduce the system at more of its branches "since there has been a rise in demand from consumers wanting to avoid waiting in line in front of checkouts.

The firm will introduce the system from mid-June onward at 14 stores in areas including Tokyo and Chiba Prefecture, east of the capital. It also plans to introduce the system at supermarket chains Maruetsu and Maxvalu Kanto by the end of February 2021.

Drive-through and delivery services are also spreading among supermarkets. Aeon Retail Co. has launched a service whereby groceries, clothes, daily necessities and other items ordered online are handed over to customers who remain inside their cars in the parking lot or other areas of the store grounds. The system went into operation at three outlets including one in Tochigi Prefecture in eastern Japan on May 1.

Originally, only one store in the central Japan prefecture of Mie had offered such a service, but following the spread of the coronavirus, the service has spread to about 50 other outlets over the past month.

Supermarket chain Life Corp., which began working with Amazon Japan on an online delivery service of perishables and prepared foods in September 2019, says it will expand the service -- currently available only in some of Tokyo's 23 wards -- to all of the wards as well as the cities of Musashino, Mitaka, Komae and Chofu in suburban Tokyo by this summer. Life had been offering delivery services from before, but only to places within 1-2 kilometers of each store.

A spokesperson with Life explained, "We've been able to expand the range of deliveries by using Amazon's network," and said the company is mulling introducing the same service in the western Japan prefecture of Osaka. Customers will need to be registered on Amazon Prime to use the delivery system.

However, as developing systems and introducing special devices place a heavy financial burden on grocery store operators, companies are still searching for the best methods.

Naoko Ogata, a chief researcher at Japan Research Institute Ltd., who is informed about consumer behavior, commented, "Right now, supermarkets are responding in part to social demands, and it's possible that consumer demands for systems to make purchases without close contact with staffers will decline as infections come to an end. For such services to take root, there needs to be a profit structure commensurate with the financial burden."

(Japanese original by Hajime Nakatsugawa, Business News Department)

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