Robots Go to Work in Japanese C-Stores

The TX SCARA takes on the routine task of restocking the beverage cooler amid a labor shortage.

September 07, 2022

TOKYO—In Japan, robots are restocking the shelves of some of the country’s “conbini,” which are small stores that sell snacks, drinks and miscellaneous items, reports the Associated Press. The robot is called TX SCARA, and the units are in 300 out of the 16,000 FamilyMart stores in Japan. There are about 56,000 conbini in Japan.

The TX SCARA has a “hand” on one end of its mechanical arm, and it grabs beverages from stacks on the sides of the shelves and then restocks the shelves correctly, using AI and cameras to figure out what beverages on the shelf need to be replaced. The robot can restock up to 1,000 beverages a day.

“We want to automate all the repetitive jobs and boring jobs done by humans. That is the direction we are going. And the best way to do that is to use the robots,” said Jin Tomioka, CEO of Tokyo-based Telexistence, which created TX SCARA told AP.

Many of the Japanese conbini are open 24-7 and have thousands of products but few workers. The robots by Telexistence are meant for established retailers, and there’s no need to change current store layouts. The robots are reportedly more affordable than industrial robots and are designed to coexist and collaborate with people, completing routine tasks.

The robots allow for remote control, and Telexistence employees can remotely see problems with the robots as they happen, such as a dropped beverage in the case of the TX SCARA robot.

Japan’s population is aging, leaving the country with a labor shortage that is expected to worsen. FamilyMart CEO Tomohiro Kano referred to the Japanese expression “seeking even a cat’s paw for help” to describe how the labor situation might escalate.

“At FamilyMart, we are seeking a robot’s arm for help,” he told the AP.

In the U.S., robot labor is growing amid the country’s own labor shortage. Robot orders for workplaces increased 40% during the first quarter of 2022 compared with the first quarter of 2021, which is a record amount. The U.S. has been slower to embrace robotics than other industrialized countries. The number of robots deployed in the U.S. per 10,000 workers has traditionally trailed countries such as South Korea, Japan and Germany. But America’s attitude is shifting.

With many industry observers stating the pandemic has triggered a fundamental “reset of retail,” new technologies including robotics, machine learning and AI also are being more rapidly deployed to enable operators to respond to the “new norm.” Read more in the NACS Magazine feature, “Robots Deliver.”

Mark your calendars for February 28 to March 2, 2023, when NACS Convenience Summit Asia heads to Bangkok, Thailand, where you’ll be transported into the epicenter of retail disruption and innovation—Asia—for an immersive look into the future of convenience retailing. Sign up to be notified when registration opens.