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An AI future as seen through Chinese retail

July 12, 2018
Retail provides a good contemporary case study for how an AI future might look in China.


By Wang Xiao’e

The retail sector has real market needs for AI: retailers want precise marketing, intelligent management, optimized supply chains and unmanned convenience stores. Customers long for a better shopping experience.

Setting their sights on these wants, AI startups have come up with tailored solutions or products to serve the market either by making moves on their own or by cooperating with partner retailers.

China’s unmanned store startup BingoBox recently unveiled its new solution “Fan AI,” which replaced the old radio-frequency identification tags with cameras powered by image recognition technology. Customers can now pile up merchandise at the checkout counter and pay with their smartphones without need of human assistance.

BingoBox has also introduced a smart shelving system equipped with cameras and advertising displays. Customers’ behavior is captured by the cameras, and customized promotional messages appear on the displays. Price tags, for instance, can be adjusted as needed. In addition, the shelves also act as a way to communicate directly with customers.

As a result, customers enjoy convenience and a fresh shopping experience while BingoBox stores save money by eliminating the need for in-store human workers. According to the company, four people at minimum can manage 40 BingoBox stores, and operation costs are 15% lower than that of traditional convenience stores.

Scan your face

Unlike BingoBox, the majority of AI startups break into the retail market through integration into partner retailers’ solutions or products. Such cooperation is usually win-win: high-tech firms’ cutting-edge technologies help retailers offer an improved customer experience. The substantial benefits make retailers more willing to invest in their partner startups.

For instance, in 2015, Megvii, which invented face recognition platform Face++, provided its technology to Alipay’s “scan-your-face-to-pay” function. Alibaba’s financial arm Ant Financial became one of the main investors in Megvii’s Series C funding, which raised US$460 million and set a new global AI startup funding record.

And Megvii is not an exception. Ubtech has launched cloud-based humanoid Cruzr, a robot that integrates various interactive modes, enables more fluid human-like interactions and which could greatly enhance user experience.

On January 6, 2018, Ubtech and Easyhome Furnishing, China’s second largest home improvement supplies and furniture chain, jointly announced that 2,150 Cruzr robots had officially started work at Easyhome’s thousands of stores across the country. This move was the first time AI robots had been put into service for offline retailing on such a large scale. Four months later, Easyhome Furnishing appeared on the investor list of Ubtech’s Series C funding.

China has both the keys to success and the potential for failure in its quest for global AI dominance. How the country and its AI startups navigate the coming decade will decide which outcome will win out.

Edited by Wendy Lovinger and Wang Xinlei

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July 12, 2018
An AI future as seen through Chinese retail
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