In China, tech reshapes retail

Amazon opened its first staffless supermarket last month in Seattle. You can walk out with groceries, and the hi-tech Amazon Go store knows exactly how much to charge you. But that’s just one concept shop. Over in China, cashierless stores have already taken off. Like this one… There’s a smattering of BingoBox stores across 29 Chinese cities, and the startup plans to have 500 outlets sometime in 2018. Bigger firms are also giving this a shot. WeChat, China’s hugely popular messaging app, recently opened an unmanned pop-up shop. And Suning, a huge chain similar to Best Buy, is also testing its own robo-stores. Meanwhile, Alibaba – China’s answer to Amazon – is doing things differently. Jack Ma’s firm has opened Hema, a supermarket chain that looks like any old retailer from the outside. But inside, it’s got a few tech twists. If you don’t fancy dropping in, you can have your groceries delivered to your door, with the app remembering your preferences from that time when you visited the supermarket in person. And it has fresh foods and lots of chefs, so you can order freshly cooked meals to your door too. Alibaba plans to open 30 more Hema shops in 2018. JD, Alibaba’s archrival, recently started its own groceries chain called 7FRESH. The stores will soon add robot shopping carts that follow you around. But it’s not just shopping that’s changing quickly on every Main Street in China – so are services. These unmanned, app-connected gyms allow people to workout whenever they want, without needing a pricey annual membership. If you prefer to sweat while belting out a ballad, China also has karaoke booths that you control and pay for using your phone. There are at least 20,000 karaoke booths across the country, located in areas where people usually have time on their hands, like malls and bus stations. There’ll be lots more automation and brick-and-mortar reinventions in the country throughout 2018. China is the world’s biggest retail market, worth an estimated US$6 trillion this year. Meanwhile, online spending is expected to hit US$1.5 trillion. Clearly, conventional retail is a large and lucrative opportunity that’s bigger than ecommerce. That’s why China’s startups and tech giants alike want to take your money whether you’re online or offline.

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