JR East has opened a cashierless retail kiosk on the platform of Akabane Station in Tokyo where the shopping experience is fully run by artificial intelligence.

Unmanned retail outlets are nothing new in Japan — nor overseas, not least Amazon, which is considering to open 3,000 cashierless stores. The convenience store chain Lawson recently introduced a fully self-service branch in Akihabara. Other chains like the video rental and bookstore retailer Tsutaya also have self-service checkouts. In fact, it is common in both cities and the countryside to come across so-called unmanned stands or stalls selling vegetables and fruit.

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In this case, however, JR has integrated the system with the IC cards that are so prevalent in Japan among travelers, and already widely accepted at vending machines and stores. A customer enters the kiosk with his or her Suica or other IC card. The 80 installed cameras around the small store and shelves then detect which items are selected by the customer, using AI to supervise the visit. The cost is then automatically debited from the credit on the card when tapping to exit the kiosk. The shop sells the usual kinds of products found at railway station kiosks, such as drinks and snacks.

The Akabane Station kiosk is only a two-month trial, though shoppers should expect similar fully cashierless systems in the future if it proves a success. JR East anticipates the shop will be used by some 6,000 people per month.

While the development speaks to the sophisticated and efficiency of Japanese infrastructure, it rather flies in the face of the traditional emphasis on good customer service. What could be colder than being served than a screen? What could be any less omotenashi?

Moreover, the reliance on cameras and an individual’s IC card may also worry some people about the implications for surveillance and privacy. Of course, passengers are already tracked closely by operators through the data collected from their cards that reveal where they took trains and what they have purchased.

Regardless, the novelty of the kiosk has ensured that it generated a lot of publicity and currently has lines of people waiting to try it out.

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