Wheelys, a startup that got its start selling an all-in-one cafe on a bike, is pushing forward with another crazy local commerce idea. The company is opening up an unmanned retail store in Shanghai that will allow customers to buy chocolates, cigarettes or potato chips at any time, day or night.
“We’ve been thinking about how to make shopping more innovative, effective and cheaper for people to start a cafe or retail in general,” Wheelys cofounder and CEO Maria De La Croix told me.
With that in mind, the company’s new project builds upon the work Wheelys had done for its coffee bikes in enabling mobile purchases, while also leveraging inventory management software it built for its mobile cafe owners.
The company makes money for its Wheelys Cafés not just through the sale of the hardware, but by making sure its coffee bike entrepreneurs are well stocked with goods for sale. Since Wheelys keeps tabs on all items sold through its mobile app, it knows when to resupply owners of its bike cafes. That same technology will be used to track sales of unmanned retail locations.
Dubbed Wheelys 247, the new store is connected to a mobile app that customers will use to scan and purchase items. To deter theft, the store will require the mobile app to enter, and is outfitted with video cameras to watch patrons inside.
As a result, the store won’t require anyone to man a register or check customers out, although it will need someone to occasionally restock items.
Of course, Wheelys isn’t the only company looking to reduce the friction of local retail. Most famously, Amazon is testing a cashier-free retail location in Seattle called Amazon Go.
But Wheelys is one of the first startups to get in on the action, and the company’s Shanghai location isn’t the first unmanned store it launched. Early last year, it debuted a cashier-free shop in a small town in Sweden.
With offices in Sweden and Shanghai, Wheelys is able to test in different retail environments — whether it’s a rural area where the nearest store is a 20-minute drive away or a location in a densely populated city.
Regardless, the company sees a future where unmanned stores aren’t the exception, but the norm. “I believe in five to 10 years, all stores will look like this,” De La Croix said.
In the same way it allowed pretty much anyone to become a cafe owner, Wheelys thinks it can usher in a new era of local retail shops. Rather than allowing the big brick and mortar retailers to get all the benefit from unmanned shops, Wheelys wants to license to other entrepreneurs who will be able take advantage of its technology.
And all that could mean more stores where users can buy grab-and-go food and other goods coming to a town near you.