AI writes new chapter in the bookstore business

New bookstore's chatbot 'staffer' leads way in revamping operations, recommending titles and managing logistics

2023.06.01
by Ruiko kokubun
AI writes new chapter in the bookstore business
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J-STORIES - At first glance, the Tokyo bookstore looks like any other bricks-and-mortar business selling conventional paper-and-ink tomes. But walk through the door, and its “assistant manager” waiting to greet you is anything but the usual flesh and blood bookworm. In fact, customers who shop at this bookstore, which opened in April, interact with the "staffer" via a vertical display, and their book-related enquiries are answered by the online chat-bot ChatGPT.
The system takes advantage of ChatGPT’s ability to provide useful answers to vague and open-ended questions, meaning customers can even obtain recommendations simply by typing in the kind of mood they are in on that particular day.
Photo shows the vertical display at the store entrance.     Source: Toumei Shoten
Toumei Shoten is owned and operated by Tokyo-based Freee K.K., a provider of cloud accounting software and other services. Company co-president  Shunsuke Iwami says the store’s name, which means "Transparent Bookstore," refers to the open way in which its revenues and other business information is made widely available. The company hopes this might provide a useful reference for others interested in the potential of generative AI.
Some of the 3,000 titles at the Tokyo store.  Source: Toumei Shoten
Some of the 3,000 titles at the Tokyo store.  Source: Toumei Shoten
The 70-square-meter store stocks around 3,000 titles, including novels, picture books, and manga, as well as many books related to running small- and medium-size businesses. It is based in the district of Kuramae, which is known for its history of artisanship and in recent years has become a hub for those working in creative fields.
The store may well well employ AI tech, but is otherwise a conventional print and paper bookstore.     Source: Toumei Shoten
The store may well well employ AI tech, but is otherwise a conventional print and paper bookstore.     Source: Toumei Shoten
A variety of genres, including novels, manga and business self-help guides, can be found at the store.     Source: Toumei Shoten
A variety of genres, including novels, manga and business self-help guides, can be found at the store.     Source: Toumei Shoten
But why would an IT company focusing on cloud accounting services open a conventional bookstore? Iwami told J-Stories that Freee aims to test how AI technology can help small businesses, not just with accounting, but also tasks such as HR management, and stock taking.
Signboards outside the store entrance.&nbsp; &nbsp; &nbsp;Source: Toumei Shoten<br>
Signboards outside the store entrance.     Source: Toumei Shoten
At the same time, now that it is a large publicly listed company of around 1,000 employees, Freee finds it harder to intuitively understand the issues faced by its small- and medium-size business customers. So, the bookstore project is also a way for the company to identify those issues. Not only can it help develop new tools for bookstore management, but also improve the core business support services provided by Freee.
 “Bookstores have physical stock and order many different kinds of books. Many use analogue methods such as paper and fax, so we think there is plenty of room to bring in technology,” said Iwami.
Staying true to its name, the Transparent Bookstore shares all its daily sales and targets, but is yet to turn a profit. Iwami told J-Stories that to do so from book sales alone will be challenging.
“We would like to explore revenue streams other than selling books, such as holding events and selling merchandise,” he said
Shunsuke Iwami speaks during a media event to explain the company's policies and objectives.&nbsp; &nbsp; &nbsp;Source: Toumei Shoten
Shunsuke Iwami speaks during a media event to explain the company's policies and objectives.     Source: Toumei Shoten
Translation by Tony McNicol
Top page photo by Toumei Shoten
For inquiries about this article, please contact jstories@pacficbridge.jp

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Click here for the Japanese version of the article.

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