Japan has long led the way in making shopping easier with vending machines but one company is now extending that convenience to foreign visitors purchasing tax-free goods, which can often be a time-consuming process.
Travelers can preorder items online and pick them up at automated retail machines at airports or other transport hubs in major cities including Tokyo, removing the hassle of filling in tax-free documents, waiting in line at stores to get refunds, or carrying around purchases during stays.
WAmazing Inc., an online platform for foreign tourists, offers 6,900 items, including popular sweets and snacks, Japanese-brand cosmetics, baby food and baby formula, shampoos, conditioners and detergents.
The website is offered in Chinese and English, with the products mainly targeting young female visitors from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan as the age of visitors from those countries drops due to the effects of the pandemic, WAmazing said.
"If they make an order online, shoppers no longer need to take time searching for their favorite items at a drugstore, which may only be labeled in Japanese," said Kaori Kishino, WAmazing's marketing manager.
Since October, the company has set up its machines, which resemble lockers, at Haneda Airport Terminal 3 Station in Tokyo, Kansai Airport Station in Osaka Prefecture, Central Japan International Airport Station near Nagoya, New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido and Nishitetsu Tenjin Expressway Bus Terminal in Fukuoka Prefecture.
Two more machines are expected to be set up at Narita Airport Station and Airport Terminal 2 Station, both directly connected to Narita airport buildings, by March this year.
Orders need to be placed at least three days in advance. It takes less than three minutes to pick up the purchased items at the outlets. The process includes scanning a QR code, identification verification through facial recognition and passport data, and payment.
For manufacturers of the items, the service is another channel to extend their visibility. For makers based in rural areas, where establishing tax-free outlets is difficult due to labor shortages and the language barrier, the service helps connect them to a lucrative market they might otherwise miss.
WAmazing, which also offers free SIM cards to visitors, said it aims to install the tax-free vending machines at all airports in Japan where international arrivals are expected.
"The number of users has been on the uptrend since the government relaxed border restrictions in October and we expect more in the months ahead," said Satomi Aoki, business development manager at WAmazing.
Aoki is pinning hope on the recovery in the number of people visiting from mainland China, previously making up a large portion of arrivals.
China had until recently severely restricted overseas travel under its strict "zero-COVID" policy, while Japan has also strengthened its border controls for arrivals from the country after coronavirus cases exploded there.
The government hopes that the pickup in travelers to Japan will stimulate tourist consumption. It has maintained its goal of welcoming 60 million inbound travelers in 2030, hoping their total consumption in Japan will reach 15 trillion yen ($116 billion).
So far, the most spent by travelers to Japan was 4.81 trillion yen in the pre-pandemic year of 2019, when foreign visitors hit a record high of 31.88 million.
The number of tax-free shops across the country reached 52,000 in 2021, compared to fewer than 40,000 in 2016, according to the Japan Tourism Agency.
Kishino said some stores at Japanese airports remain closed due to manpower shortages, leaving inbound tourists disappointed.
The tax-free vending machines will be "a convenient way to use (their) time while staying in Japan when travelers are already required to wait in line to get in and out of the country due to the coronavirus pandemic," she said.