An Automated Convenience Has Opened in Shanghai

Wheelys 247

The days of making small talk with convenience store clerks may soon come to an end, as automation continues to take on jobs once performed by humans

The latest entrant into the automation race is Swedish bicycle café Wheelys, which last week unveiled a 24-hour, unmanned convenience store, called Wheelys 247.

An musing video released to show off the new store promises, “NO LINES, NO CHECKOUT, NO CASHIER.”

The store, located in Shanghai’s French Concession, a popular area for tourists in the massive Chinese city, follows the launch of a test store in Viken in southeast Sweden in March 2016.

The stores, which take up around 500 square feet, have what you would expect from such an operation, offering a selection of meal kits and grocery essentials from both brands that are familiar to consumers and “special finds.” Alongside bread, milk and cheese, the company has created Wheelys Meal Kits that promise a meal for two in 30 minutes.

Its owner is hopeful: “In the future, we’re talking five to 10 years, all stores will look like this,” CEO Maria De La Croix tells Inverse. “Our vision is to provide this platform to empower entrepreneurs. We want to give Davids the tools to win against Goliaths, large corporations.”

Although an automated store brings to mind robot shopkeepers, in practice it’s much simpler.

Users download the Wheelys app to their smartphone and use their phone to enter the store — much how you’d enter a bank by swiping your debit card — and then scan what they want to buy using their phone’s camera.

As they leave the store, and the card they registered with the service is charged for whatever they scanned with their phone. A security camera apparently records a feed of occupants, so one won’t be able to stroll in, grab a few treats and walk out without being filmed.

Wheelys began in 2014 with bicycles-turned-rolling-cafes that served organically grown food. The bike-cafes offer an integrated espresso maker, wifi, fridge, solar panel, and even a bluetooth stereo. The company has expanded to 900 locations in 73 countries.

In a similar setup to the bikes, Wheelys wants to hand the tools over the entrepreneurs to start up their own staffless stores. But while the company may be able to remove the store clerk from the equation, Wheelys’ design still depends on a member of staff to restock the shelves. Because purchases and restocking is handled by an app, though, the company can aid owners in maintaining stock levels.

The system is currently in beta testing, so while De La Croix sees the service taking over during the next few years, for now you’re probably best sticking to your local store.

Here’s the video, in which we hear a voiceover delivered by an imagined customer — who apparently has a hangover — as she runs down items she needs to purchase. We also experience her interaction with Elena, a chipper AI system in the form of a drop cam mounted on the ceiling at the 247 Store. “God I wanted to ram my fist through the speaker!” exclaims the customer imagined by Wheelys, in the cheeky advertisement. “Somewhere in cyberspace my credit card was charged.”

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