Connecting readers & tech
China’s first-ever unstaffed bookstore combines physical browsing experience with high-tech checkout service
On the green Guoquan Road leading to Fudan University stands a tiny bookstore. Over the past 14 years it has said goodbye to several generations of graduates – along with Shanghai’s once-prosperous physical bookstore market following the recent wave of digital reading devices and online e-commerce platforms.
Having explored both online and offline business models, Zhida Bookstore recently decided to combine the two by launching China’s first-ever unmanned bookstore.
If the unusual venture works, more similar bookstores could be launched around Shanghai, providing residents and students with a brand-new onlineoffline reading experience that could disrupt both the traditional retail model and the newer online platform that currently dominates the market.
A highlight of this new unmanned bookstore is that it allows customers to process their payments using a mobile payment system based on facial recognition technologies offered by Tmall.
Stand at the entrance’s sensory zone, take out your phone, scan the QR code with your Alipay app and the gates will automatically open for you. Once inside, shoppers can browse the employee-free store.
After selecting your purchase, walk directly to the exit where the payment system will automatically scan your face, recognize the price tag of the book and deduct the cost from your Alipay – all in a matter of seconds.
Catering to different tastes
The store is currently staffed by humans in order to guide those who are not yet familiar with the high-tech process.
“I think it is quite convenient and fresh to pay through the facial recognition system,” Evelyn, a freshman at Fudan University, told the Global times on the store’s opening day.
“I would prefer this type of unmanned bookstore over traditional bookstores, because it allows more personal space to immerse myself in the books and find peace,” she added.
The 94-square-meter bookstore is divided into two spaces, one for popular literature and one for the deeper reading required by scholars and students. The two areas are divided, catering to the tastes of each type of reader.
Thus far the store boasts over 6,000 works, and each book is installed with an RFID code. A camera at the exit can “sense” the cost of the book and automatically deduct the payment without the shopper having to manually scan the book.
Luo Hong, manager of Zhida Bookstore, told the Global Times that she aims to better connect readers through technology. “We should not refuse technology but utilize it to integrate the advantages of an online and offline bookstore,” said Luo.
Best of both worlds
In the future, the bookstore and Tmall will together explore combining online rating systems with the offline browsing experience.
For example, when a customer browses a book on the shelf, the book’s online user rating and reviews will automatically be displayed on a digital screen. This essentially combines the best of both worlds, with customers being able to physically hold the book they intend to buy but also having access to online information about the book.
World Book Day, which fell on April 23 this year, saw the opening of a new batch of bookstores around the city, each with distinctive characteristics.
Sinan Books, for example, focuses on foreign-language books; Writers Bookstore centers on literature autographed by the authors; Zhida Bookstore offers a tentative example for physical bookstores by infusing technology into offline retail.
“The sustainable development of China’s book industry cannot be achieved without continuous innovation. We are glad to see these local bookstores innovating and upgrading based on the demand of customers,” said Xu Jiong, director of Shanghai Municipal Press and Publication Bureau on the World Book Day.
“With new ideas, new technology and new business models, they will promote an upgrading of China’s physical bookstore industry,” Xu said.
Inset: A woman checks A woman passes by Zhida Bookstore. out a book at the unstaffed bookstore.