Leading convenience store operator Lawson Inc. will introduce unmanned checkout counters at some Tokyo outlets next spring to cope with a labor shortage that threatens its survival.

The company said Dec. 4 it is committed to maintaining around-the-clock operations, a big draw at its stores, and will introduce unmanned operations from midnight to 5 a.m. at selected outlets in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

“We will definitely maintain 24-hour operations by using ever more effective labor-saving digital technology,” said Sadanobu Takemasu, president of Lawson.

Because there will be no staff on hand, customers must first download a special app on a smartphone to enter the premises and pay for goods.

Once a customer scans the bar code of a particular product on shelves to pay using a smartphone camera, it is simply a matter of holding the device over a digital display at the counter to check out.

Lawson said the move is intended to improve its operational efficiency. Tobacco products and alcoholic beverages will not be offered for sale during hours when an outlet is unmanned.

However, a staff member will remain in the back office to monitor inventories and customer payments.

To counter shoplifting and other criminal behavior, the company plans to mount more surveillance cameras in its stores.

Even so, it is impossible to predict what could go wrong, given the way people behave.

“We never know the effects of labor-saving unless we actually introduce it,” Takemasu added.

The company also unveiled its state of the art payment technology in which a sensor detects RFID (radio-frequency identification) featured on products.

The technology allows payments to be made simply by passing sensors mounted on the doorway of the store as customers leave with their bagged purchases.

The precise date for the introduction of the service remains undecided, but Lawson said it intends to employ further labor-saving aspects in the future.

The fast pace of technological development is partly to blame for the labor crunch, which has hit convenience stores in urban areas hard because stores until now had relied on manned operations.

The latest trend seems to be a natural progression as it is becoming harder to find staff who can work all hours of the day and night.

The company once experimented with suspending around-the-clock operations at some stores, which dealt a big blow to its inventory control and a corresponding drop in sales.

Rival Seven-Eleven Japan Co. also appears set to follow in Lawson's footsteps.

“We are 100 percent sure that we will not review our policy of 24-hour operations,” said company president Kazuki Furuya.

Seven-Eleven Japan has already begun to look into the feasibility of introducing RFID at some outlets and is now working on technology that will enable staff to check if products were delivered promptly.

FamilyMart Co., another popular convenience store chain, has experimented with partially suspending 24/7 services.

“Around-the-clock operation can be decided on a case-by-case basis,” said company president Takashi Sawada.

FamilyMart is considering to offer sales of "onigiri" rice balls and other products from automatic vending machines while its stores are closed.

Until now, convenience stores have touted their 24-hour operations as “a chance to buy what you want, whenever you want and as much as you want,” Takemasu said.

Even in the wee hours when few customers are visiting stores, product deliveries are being made. It is now the industry's accepted notion that closing stores at night could impede daytime operations.

Taking the unmanned route may offer convenience stores their best hope in maintaining 24-hour operations as the labor shortage problem is likely here to stay.