E-tag tests under way for unstaffed convenience stores in Japan

Electronic tags are shown attached to products at Lawson's experimental facility in Minato Ward, Tokyo. PHOTO: THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

TOKYO (THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Major convenience store chains in Japan are competing to develop next-generation outlets that tap on electronic tags, in a bid to tackle labour shortage and costs as well as strengthen sales strategies.

Lawson opened an experimental facility in October in an office building in Minato Ward, Tokyo, in cooperation with a major home electronics manufacturer. Numerous experiments have been conducted there aimed at putting the latest technologies for electronic tags into practical use.

A Lawson employee playing the role of a customer would put items such as deli products and snacks into a shopping bag. When the employee passed through an automatic clearance gate for payment installed near the entrance of the "store", the gate's radio waves would read information on the electronic tags attached to each item.

Payment was made through a smartphone app and a receipt sent to the smartphone.

Each electronic tag is equipped with a tiny integrated circuit chip and antenna. Unlike bar codes, there is no need to read each electronic tag one by one, or to search for where the tag is attached to each product.

When the system is put into practical use, convenience stores will be able to do without cashiers as cash registers will be removed.

A Lawson official in charge of the trial said: "Electronic tags can be used in a wide range of applications, such as efficient management of inventories and dissemination of information to customers."

The official added that the company also wanted to promote the benefits of the system to manufacturers and suppliers that provide goods to Lawson stores.

In December, Seven-Eleven Japan will convert the convenience store at its head office in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, into a next-generation store that is open to the public.

Seven-Eleven also hopes to undertake projects such as product development by collecting big data concerning its customers, including the frequency of their visits and records of their purchases via a smartphone app designed for the system.

Another convenience store chain, FamilyMart, also plans to conduct trials using electronic tags by as early as the end of 2018.

In April this year, the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry announced a plan for a total of 100 billion electronic tags to be used at convenience stores in Japan. Under the plan, the ministry hopes that all of the roughly 100 billion goods sold annually at more than 50,000 outlets of major convenience store chains in the country will be attached with electronic tags by 2025.

One hurdle to using electronic tags is their cost: currently between 10 yen (S$0.12) and 20 yen per tag. It needs to be reduced to around 1 yen per tag because many goods sold in convenience stores are priced at around 100 yen each.

There is also the need for rules on protecting customers' personal information, as payment via smartphone will make it possible for convenience store chains to collect data on their customers' shopping habits.

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