Unmanned Stores Are on the Rise in Japan

An unmanned store in Tokyo that uses AI.

An unmanned store in Tokyo that uses AI. (Photo courtesy of SECURE, INC.)

Japan is known for being a safe country, with vending machines all over. Recently, there have been more and more unmanned stores that utilize technology. Unmanned vegetable stores have been a familiar sight for many years in Japan. Let's look at the recent trends about unattended retail in the country.

So, What Kinds of Unattended Retail Are Unique to Japan?

Left: A traditional unmanned vegetable store. Customers choose the vegetables they want, and then put the money for payment into a red piggy bank shaped like a daruma doll—a good luck charm that has been in Japan for centuries.

Right: An unmanned store selling seasonal vegetables in Hinohara Village, Tokyo. (Photos courtesy of TOKYOFARM)

Japan has had unmanned vegetable stores in many places across the country for many years. It is said that these stores originated with people wanting to share seasonal vegetables grown in home gardens when they had too many to eat on their own, because it would be a waste to throw them away. Today, you can still see people visit these stores in many areas around Japan, and then putting money in a box before taking their vegetables, without anyone running the stores at all.

There has been demand in recent years for a style of shopping that does not require contact with people. As a result, there has been an increase in unmanned stores that use technology.

An unmanned store specializing in decorative cut branches from the four seasons in Japan. There is a large glass window facing the street, and people passing by can come in freely. The store has a wide range of products, as well as a poster describing how to pay. (Photos courtesy of Trinus, Inc.)

One company sells decorative branches online during fixed periods across the seasons, such as cherry and plum tree branches in the spring, and Japanese andromeda and white enkianthus in the summer. This company opened an unmanned store that also functions as a showroom. The aim of this store is to let people enjoy the seasons in an iconic Japanese way even if they need to stay longer at home due to the spread of remote working. Customers get to see the real products in person, which helps them imagine what their life would be like with this seasonal touch, and they can also examine the products closely without worrying about what the staff members might think. The store has a security camera installed, and customers are encouraged to use cashless payment or buy online. There are also other creative ideas in the store, such as including a box for cash as a part of the shelving.

The inside of a self-service machine. A management system uses cutting-edge technology to keep track of product stock and movement history in real time, and it automatically restocks products as well. Customers with a registered account can open and close the fridges and then buy products without using cash. (Photos courtesy of Taito Ward)

Unattended retail is being carried out in ward offices within Tokyo to reduce food loss. For example, there are self-service machines that sell many different things. Some sell Kintaro ame (a traditional type of stick candy featuring the face of the legendary character Kintaro wherever it is cut) that was produced in a local factory but includes cracks or defects making it not possible to be sold in usual stores. Others sell juice made from fruit with irregular shapes that make them otherwise unsellable, or food products that are close to their expiry dates. Anyone with a registered account can buy products from these machines. There are security cameras inside the boxes of the machine, and so no issues have ever occurred with these machines so far. These efforts are said to help local people think about food loss as an issue that is close to home.

Unmanned Stores Continue to Evolve

A store with dresses arranged by color. Customers can try the clothes on, and they can coordinate their look with accessories and shoes. (Photos courtesy of Empty Dressy)

The world of unmanned stores is expanding in the fields of clothing and accessories, too. One rental store in Shibuya, Tokyo started running a 24-hour unmanned apparel store in 2017. This was one of the first initiatives of its kind in the world. It has gained popularity as a way for people to easily rent clothes on the way home from work. Party dresses for weddings and other events are usually expensive to buy. However, this store lets people make reservations, payments, enter and exit the store, and return these dresses simply using their smartphones. With security cameras and a customized management system, the store has had hardly any issues since it opened.

From the outside, you wouldn't imagine that this store is unmanned. The interior has a photogenic style, and there is a self-service checkout too. An advanced security camera system immediately alerts the police if it detects suspicious activity. (Photos courtesy of SELFURUGI)

Younger people are paying attention to the unattended retail of used clothing, as they empathize with the concept of sustainability. One company that operates multiple stores within Tokyo has tried something new based on how young used clothes customers enjoy using social media. The company created photogenic spots inside its stores, and it introduced self-service checkouts with cutting-edge security. Unlike new apparel, used clothes increase in price with age. As such, there is no need to sell them immediately. Also, the stores can buy these products at low prices and there are no labor costs for staff in the store, so customers can enjoy choosing used clothes at affordable prices 24 hours a day and all year round.

The stylish interior features security cameras as well. Customers can pay with a QR code or at the self-service checkout. This store sells very unique products, such as sweet drinks that you make yourself by mashing bananas, and Japanese sweet dumplings packaged in a jar. (Photos courtesy of 24 Sweets shop)

This store is unmanned but it places a very clear focus on its products. It is kept safe with a security camera along with a tablet device. (Photos courtesy of JapanPlanning Co., Ltd.)

Unattended retail for food products is also bustling. A popular 24-hour unmanned store dedicated to sweets features products from many locations that cannot be found at convenience stores or supermarkets. The store owner originally launched this business in Hiroshima. He says that you are free to choose not to buy anything, and that the appeal of unattended retail is that you can easily visit the store. Another company opened an unmanned store for gyoza, with a focus on not using any additives. In the past three years, this company has expanded to a total of 87 stores, and customers are happy about being able to buy healthy food at any time of day.

Left: This store has many security cameras linked with AI inside.
Right: The entrance to the store looks like the ticket gates of a train station. Here, a customer is holding up a smartphone to go inside. (Photos courtesy of SECURE, INC.)

There is one unmanned store in Shinjuku, Tokyo that uses cutting-edge AI. It sells food, general goods, stationery, and other products that are commonly found in regular Japanese convenience stores, but it has one big difference: This store has no checkout. Before using the store, customers download an app to their smartphones and then register an account. They hold up a QR code on their smartphone to a scanner at the entrance, take the products they want, and then leave the store without needing to do anything else. The camera footage is analyzed using AI to understand each customer's movements in three-dimensional space. After each customer leaves the store, a receipt is automatically generated and then sent to their smartphone. The total price is calculated accurately even if customers take an item but return it to the shelf before leaving.

Japan's unmanned stores are increasing in recent years, and they use constantly evolving technology to ensure better convenience and security. Each store has its own unique characteristics that make them even more popular.