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honestbee cross-pollinates supermart with dining - and sweetens it with tech

At habitat by honestbee, shoppers push their trolley through an AutoCheckout lane, launch the app on their phone and tap their honestbee QR code on a reader. Their items are scanned and bagged; shoppers are charged via honestbee's e-wallet, beePay.


HOMEGROWN startup honestbee on Tuesday launched habitat by honestbee, the world's first tech-enabled, cashless, multi-sensory grocery and dining concept of its kind.

Occupying 60,000 sq ft of space in an industrial building in Pasir Panjang, habitat is an upmarket, stylish marketplace comprising restaurants, a supermarket and a retail innovation lab.

It marks honestbee's first foray into a brick-and-mortar business. The startup was founded in 2015 as an online marketplace that provides grocery-delivery services, but has since diversified into food delivery, laundry and ticketing services.

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Joel Sng, chief executive officer of honestbee, said habitat was inspired by a desire to be "closer to customers", and to offer an experiential product on top of its online services.

He told The Business Times: "Our core product, food, is fundamentally a multi-sensory product. What we do well today is an online business that provides convenience, but that activates only sight. When it comes to the consumption of say, an apple or fried rice, you will need to smell and taste it. The phone cannot provide that for you, so we've created a physical marketplace to do that."

He added that plans are underway to launch habitat in the seven other markets in which honestbee is operating, namely Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Hong Kong. "Everything is meant to be scalable. This is not a one-off in Singapore."

An integrated space, habitat includes a full supermarket, stocked with over 20,000 items with some 15 food and beverage concepts. Equivalent to the surface area of 41/2 Olympic-sized swimming pools, it is much larger than the average Amazon Go store - the first Go store in the US spans 1,800 sq ft.

And habitat is more integrated than Alibaba's offline retail store Hema, which runs its supermarket separately from its robot restaurant, said Mr Sng. "From an architectural point of view, we want to be a space where the fresh vegetables are next to the salad bar, and the grains are close to the pasta station."

No cash changes hands at this supermarket. All payments are made through honestbee's e-wallet, beePay, which can be topped up with one's credit card on the honestbee app.

habitat also features two tech-powered retail experiences that are believed to be global firsts: AutoCheckout and RoboCollect.

With AutoCheckout, shoppers with more than 10 items simply push their trolley through an AutoCheckout lane, launch the app on their phone and tap their honestbee QR code on a reader. Their items are automatically scanned, checked out and bagged.

RoboCollect is an automated robotic collection point where shoppers can pick up their bags. honestbee says orders can be processed between checkout and collection in as little as five minutes.

With its innovation lab, honestbee aims to test new concepts, and is looking to team up with business owners and retailers across industries to develop innovative solutions to improve the retail experience.

Food partners, for instance, could use the lab to pilot new experiences while leveraging habitat's infrastructure, mobile payment system, logistics and customer service and data, without having to commit to technological or operational costs.

The store also doubles as a fulfillment centre, where "shopper bees" go about filling bags for online customers, and then place these bags on an overhead conveyor belt, which sends them to a sorting area for pickup and delivery.

Mr Sng said: "Technology should be harnessed in the quest for quality human interaction, whether it is to give people more time to enjoy meals with family, share conversations with friends or have a deeper understanding of food."

He told BT: "The great thing about physical stores is their distribution network, but they are probably not designed for e-commerce. habitat shows a better way to design a store."

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