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Japan stores seek robotic aid amid labor shortage, coronavirus pandemic

A robot, which convenience store giants FamilyMart Co. and Lawson Inc. will introduce on a trial basis, is seen in this image provided by its developer Telexistence Inc.
A robot is seen taking orders at a register at Mos Burger's Osaki store in Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward on July 21, 2020. (Mainichi/Yuki Machino)

TOKYO -- The move to introduce robots to help with customer service and stocking shelves is increasing among restaurants and convenience stores in Japan, with the aim to support people who find it difficult to work outside and help solve the serious labor shortage in the service industry.

    The use of robots is also raising hopes as a protective measure against the novel coronavirus and is drawing attention over whether they can make full-scale expansions into eateries and retail shops.

    Mos Food Services Inc. revealed to the media on July 21 a robot serving customers at the register at Mos Burger's Osaki store in Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward. The robot called "OriHime," measuring about 23 centimeters in height, was developed by a start-up company. It is remotely controlled by an employee using devices including a laptop. Customers can be seen through a camera built into OriHime, and employees can communicate with customers using a microphone and speaker. The order, when typed into the laptop, is communicated to workers in the kitchen and customers can pay their bill at the register.

    The Osaki store will perform a test-run of the system for about a month from July 27. A 19-year-old man in the western Japan prefecture of Osaka, who has an intractable disease and has difficulty going outside, controlled the robot at the Tokyo store on July 21.

    Mos Food Services has had automated registers at some outlets since 2019. Executive Officer Yasuaki Kaneda said, "We wanted to provide warm service to customers instead of just using the devices. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, we would also like to offer services that do not require direct contact." The company is considering implementing the system at several of its stores and using the robot to also serve at tables as well as for drive-through services.

    Meanwhile, convenience store giants FamilyMart Co. and Lawson Inc. also aim to save labor by introducing human-shaped robots developed by robot maker Telexistence Inc. Familymart and Lawson will respectively perform a test-run of the system at one of their stores in Tokyo in late July and mid-September.

    The robot will be remotely controlled and will be in charge of stocking beverages from the back of the shelves first. The number of tasks will be gradually increased with the aim for the robot to automatically stock all products on the shelves, as well as making fried chicken and other foodstuff and displaying them in the future.

    However, there are many technical difficulties in terms of how robots can smoothly carry out detailed tasks at a store where customers are walking around. Products need to be placed in order of their expiration dates, and the two major convenience store chains will carefully examine the accuracy of the robots' work.

    A representative of FamilyMart explained, "We would like to introduce the robots at more stores after examining their work efficiency and reductions in labor costs." The company plans to implement the system at up to 20 stores by 2022.

    (Japanese original by Yuki Machino and Hajime Nakatsugawa, Business News Department)

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