Is this Singapore pop-up a sign of things to come for retail?

26 Jun 2019

Still from ‘UNBOXED by Singtel’. Image: Singtel/YouTube

Singapore telecoms giant Singtel has opened an unstaffed pop-up store filled to the brim with tech, but will it translate globally?

Self-service checkouts and online grocery shopping are just two examples of where the human face of retail is being phased out in favour of robots and artificial intelligence. In Singapore, this has now been extended to buying a mobile phone in-store.

Unboxed is a new concept from Singaporean telecoms giant Singtel that wants to take the pop-up shop concept and bring it to another level. Completely unstaffed, the store is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week for customers to come in and purchase a new phone or accessories, and renew contracts.

During a guided tour, I was taken around the 45 sq m modular box that is absolutely filled to the brim with tech to monitor your every moment and action. When you walk in the door, you’re greeted by a roaming robot with a computer screen livestreaming the face of a cheery customer service agent located elsewhere. In a neat feature, if your phone has wireless charging capabilities, you can pop it on the robot’s head and it will charge while you look around the store.

The small LiveBot robot with the face of a customer service rep smiling in the store.

The LiveBot greeting us as we entered the Unboxed pop-up store. Image: Colm Gorey

This ‘LiveBot’ will follow you around, by which time it has already snapped a photo of your face and matched with Singtel’s systems to find your profile. While professing that it offers customers a more ‘personalised experience’, I was told that the facial recognition ties into Singapore’s tightly controlled sale of smartphones (which requires a state ID) and not a way for Singtel to harvest biometric data.

For the customer, they get the option of again talking to a customer service rep through a booth where you can buy a new phone, get a replacement SIM card or deal with your contract. As you’re taken through the options, the customer service rep checks your usage data and tries to offer you add-ons.

While this might not sound ideal, I felt the best feature of the Unboxed concept is the ability to compare phone specifications by picking up display models in-store. If you want to compare two phones, you can do so by just picking them both up and their details will appear on screen.

A lock box when needed

This large glass box filled with the latest in desirable gadgets is packed with 13 cameras and 15 internet of things sensors designed to track your every movement. If you snip the cable holding the display phone, for example, an alarm will trigger, the door will lock shut and you’ll get a stern telling off from the human watching you through the LiveBot.

The sensors and cameras are also designed to detect unattended baggage, someone who has collapsed or even if ammonia levels suddenly rise. If the box gets too overcrowded, the doors will stop anyone from entering, but still allow people to leave.

This doesn’t make the box invincible, as there are low-tech ways to get into the pop-up store even if unwanted. But bear in mind this is located in a country with one of the lowest crime rates in the world. 

Right now, there’s only one Unboxed concept on the streets of Singapore and it’s designed to actually shrink in size to 35 sq m, allowing it to be picked up and dropped in any other location in less than a day. 

Staying alive

Which brings us to the big question: Is this unstaffed, pop-up store the future of retail and is this an attempt to keep the high street alive?

While having all the features you’d expect in a store trying to be on the edge of digitisation, it’s a concept that could struggle to replicate success globally. In the three weeks it has been open, Singtel said that it has seen 3,500 people pass through. 

Would it see the same numbers in nations statistically shown to be hesitant or even resistant to automation of retail? Singtel admitted that the idea is still in a trial concept, with this unit being moved around the city in the coming months to areas where it expects high traffic.

The telecoms provider went ahead with Unboxed based on data that showed customers aged between 21 and 35 years of age are less likely to buy online than those in an older age bracket. This trend is part of the reason why Amazon and Alibaba have taken their e-commerce platforms to brick and mortar stores with Amazon Go and Alibaba Hema, respectively. 

Unboxed may not be the future of retail, but it certainly is a sign of how high street retail might not be dead after all, but it could look radically different in the years ahead. 

Disclosure: The journalists trip to Singapore was provided by the Infocomm Media Development Authority.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic