Grocery shopping in Shanghai was an eye-opening experience. The tech, the operations, the sheer scale of it all… We walked around open-mouthed for almost a full day and can’t wait to share our discoveries with you. So buckle in and get ready to have your mind blown.
Or lack of people… Visiting the Auchan Minute store is like visiting the future. So much so that we couldn’t actually get in the front door. See, this place is unmanned. Sans staff. Not a person in sight. You get through the door by scanning a QR code with social app WeChat, pick up your shopping and then pay through the app at checkout. And if your first thought is, ‘But what about theft?’ you are not alone. CCTV monitors the store constantly, and we presume that once you’ve scanned in with your personal WeChat account, the robot police know exactly who you are and where you are at all times. We didn’t put this to the test. Through the glass front we could see around 500 convenience products – it’s kind of like a UK petrol station, if that petrol station was living its wildest technological dreams.
Order online and wait a week for a courier to turn up in a van five to seven days later? So very 2017. At Alibaba-owned supermarket Hema, you can fill your bag up and select home delivery, then watch as said bag is air-lifted to the rafters and deposited in the delivery hub, where it will be transported through a network of tunnels to your house, within 30 minutes. That’s quicker than we could get to the shop and back in person.
Let’s talk WeChat. The multipurpose app is ubiquitous in China, where 1.057 billion active monthly users turn to it for messaging and calls (like WhatsApp), social (like Facebook), checkins (like Foursquare), translation (like Google Translate) and gaming (like… gaming apps). It’s also used as a payment device in the same way that Apple Pay is used in the UK. Tap it and pay. Easy. So once you’ve used it to get into the staff-less store, you’ll whip it out to to scan your shopping and then to pay before its delivered to your home via underground tunnel.
Imagine a supermarket built on today’s scale, but with a 1950s approach to produce. This is the vibe we felt in both Hema and the main Auchan store. There are fresh foods merchandised loose throughout, which staff will weigh out and bag up for you. There are team members on stands preparing slices of fresh fruit, which you can buy in store or have delivered to your home. And then there are restaurants. Not coffee spots, but mini food hubs, serving genuinely incredible food. These places make supermarkets a destination in themselves – pop in for lunch and order dinner ingredients back to your house. Genius.
The Big Idea
To us, who are still struggling with temperamental self-checkouts, these shops were like a wonder-vision of what can be done when tech and service work together. Because, here’s the thing: none of this digital innovation was designed to wow. It was designed to provide a service – to facilitate smooth, easy shopping. The locals aren’t open-mouthed as their shopping ascends to a transport tunnel, nor are they stumped by a WeChat entry code. They’re simply accustomed to shopping supported by tech. It’s 1950s provenance powered by 2018 convenience, and we love it.