Shops, restaurants in Japan put service robots to the test

An increasing number of restaurant chains and convenience stores have introduced robots or computer terminals that receive customers and settle payments on behalf of workers.

Though it is unlikely machines to take care of customers will be widespread in the near future, it is possible that similar efforts will spread as companies find it difficult to secure employees due to labour shortages.

Hamazushi Co., a restaurant chain that serves sushi on conveyor belts, placed Pepper humanoid robots developed by SoftBank at the entrance of three restaurants including in Tokyo and Saitama between last year and this year.

The robots only receive customers. When customers input such information as the number of people in their group by touching Pepper's screen, the robot tells them how crowded the restaurant is or how many seats are available.

A Pepper robot provides seating information to a customer at a Hamazushi restaurant in Saitama on Feb. 2.Photo: The Japan News/Asia News Network

According to Zensho Holdings Co., which operates the Hamazushi chain, employees spend about two hours a day per restaurant receiving customers. The company aims to increase the time spent on serving customers and other tasks. A public relations official of the company said, "Employees have more time, and the quality of customer service can be higher."

Skylark Co., which operates restaurant chains including Gusto, and McDonald's Co. (Japan) have introduced self-checkout machines for customers to settle bills themselves on an experimental basis.

Lawson Inc. plans to increase the number of convenience stores with robots that take care of payments and packing items.

"There is a limit to how much we can raise hourly wages to secure part-time workers," an executive of a restaurant chain company said.

The introduction of robots and computer terminals could become an effective tool for customer service and settling bills.

On the other hand, some companies are taking a cautious stance. Yasuhiro Kurosu, president of Royal Holdings Co., which operates restaurant chains including Royal Host Co., said: "We place importance on hospitality. We don't intend to leave our customer service to machines."

"Unmanned services could be interpreted as decreasing the quality of customer service," said Sayaka Azuma of marketing research firm NPD Japan Ltd., "so different companies may take different approaches."