By Chae Yun-hwan
SEOUL, Jan. 28 (Yonhap) -- South Korean mobile carriers are launching unmanned stores and expanding their online retail platforms as the COVID-19 pandemic limits in-person contact and accelerates the use of virtual services.
KT Corp. said Thursday it launched its first unmanned store equipped with digital kiosks for customers to buy phones and switch data plans all on their own.
The store, located in the southeastern city of Daegu, is run by employees during the day and operates unmanned at night, allowing virus-wary customers to shop for phones by themselves. The telecom operator said it plans to open another unmanned store in southern Seoul in March.
KT joins the recent digital retail rush by mobile carriers to capture young consumers used to online services and to cut costs in physical stores.
SK Telecom Co., the country's largest mobile carrier, also operates an unmanned zone at its flagship store in western Seoul, where users can purchase or sell phones through digital kiosks and receive data plan recommendations via artificial intelligence.
As part of its virtual retail drive, the telecom operator earlier this month unveiled more affordable mobile data plans for customers who purchase phones through its online store.
The company said it was able to cut costs by solely using its online retail channels.
"The retail structure of telecom operators is changing through the COVID-19 pandemic," Hana Financial Investment analyst Kim Hong-sik said in a report. "Instead of handing out rebates to retail stores, carriers can slash prices through online data plans."
"Acquiring users online is seen as a plus in terms of profitability," Kim added.
Smaller rival LG Uplus Corp. has followed suit, releasing competitively priced mobile plans through its online store earlier this week.
The carrier has also expanded unmanned services by installing digital kiosks at 30 locations, including its retail stores and discount store Homeplus.
The kiosks, which look similar to ATM machines, allow users to buy sim cards and pay their mobile subscription fees on their own, according to LG Uplus.
The carrier first unveiled the kiosks in July last year, vowing to shift to more virtual services.
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