Super Supermarkets in Shanghai

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.


The people
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.

The Delivery
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.

The Social
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.


The Food
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.



Sean Dwyer

All aboard the good news train

In a retail landscape that on the outside looks to be all store closures and falling profits, it’s important to focus on some of the positives. Here’s our round-up of good things that have happened in retail this month.


It wouldn’t be a November round-up without mention of Iceland’s now-viral Rang-tan Christmas ad. Banned on the TV, it’s racked up 13 million views on Facebook and gained many valuable column inches. A number of retailers are also doing their bit to cut out plastic this month, like Peacocks, who’re introducing bio-degradable shopping bags into all 500 UK stores. Or Budgens in London’s Camden, who have a new plastic-free aisle.


Purple Tuesday
With its focus on getting UK retailers to make shopping easier for people with disabilities, Purple Tuesday enjoyed a roaringly successful inaugural campaign this month. The day itself involved initiatives like turning off music in stores, which can be distracting or distressing for people with hearing impairments and conditions like autism. To be involved, businesses had to make at least one long-term commitment to improving the experience of disabled customers. Organised by disability organisation Purple, with the endorsement of the Department for Work and Pensions, they aimed to bring 50 retailers on board, but ended up with over 700 taking part.


Sales are still happening
No, really. Just look at these brick-and-mortar retailers posting figures on the rise. In the UK, Primark have seen a 19% increase in year-for-year sales, with a profit leap of 7%. B&M just opened their 600th store and have their sights set on 950, with pre-tax profits of £98.9 million. And Poundland have reported annual sales of £1.5bn, with steady like-for-like growth.

Meanwhile, in America
US retailers are finding a different kind of green is boosting the economy. Yep, we’re talking about marijuana. Green Wednesday lands on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving – a time for togetherness, thankfulness and now smoking weed. Last year, sales of marijuana products on Green Wednesday totalled $11 million, and with more states introducing legal recreational sales, that number is only going to rise. However you look at it, that’s great news for the economy!

Chin up
Yes, it’s tough out there. Yes, footfall is down, but real-life stores still account for most of the sales made in the UK, and Aptos research suggests that 71% of people will favour bricks over clicks at this time of year in particular. For brands with a point of difference, who’re willing to change with the times and include a vaster swathe of society in their development, the future’s still looking bright.



Sean Dwyer

Cool beans at Starbucks Shanghai


Let’s be honest: Starbucks gets a bit of a bad rap. Once the pinnacle of cool American culture, it’s now oft-cited as the epitome of corporate deviance, with a product that’s deemed average by aficionados. So, it was with a dose of scepticism that we visited The Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Shanghai.

Opened in December 2017 and billed as, ‘a theatrical, experiential shrine to coffee passion.’ this is the world’s largest Starbucks, at 30,000 square feet, and has a lot to live up to.


It has its own roasting facility, and first impressions are reminiscent of an amusement park crossed with a scene from Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. The giant roasting machines process batches of unique small-lot Reserve coffee, which is sourced from 30 different countries worldwide. The beans are then pumped through copper pipes suspended from the ceiling to Starbucks’ many coffee bars, or packed up and sent to online customers across China. Meanwhile, staff in white uniforms busy themselves with the machines, and the dynamic station-style boards display the currently-roasting blend, while tourists queue up to snap the whole process with a sense of childlike awe.

It’s pure retail theatre and it works. 

The Roastery also harnesses some great new AR technology (designed by Starbucks and Alibaba Group) making it one of the most advanced digital locations for the brand, in the world. The technology helps customers personalise their experience with a digital web-app platform that also incorporates a digital menu, and can share information about the coffee bars and brewing methods, as well as unique experiences on and offline. At each stage of the journey, customers can unlock virtual badges which, once all collected, can be traded for a custom filter to share on social media.


So what about the actual product? From the reserve coffee to nitro draft lines, alcoholic drinks and new tea blends, The Roastery has it all. There are three wooden coffee bars including Starbucks’ longest ever, at 27m. The bars act as a kind of stage where hundreds of baristas handcraft the coffee using one of six brewing methods: ModBar Pour Over, Chemex, Coffee Press, Siphon, Espresso and the proprietary Clover-brewed coffee.

We opted for a Coffee Flight which promised the same bean brewed three different ways. And we have to report that it was good. Very good.

We sipped it down with a cake but we could have chosen anything from the high-end menu of savoury and sweets – the menu has been designed by acclaimed artisan baker Rocco Princi and is crafted by his team of more than 30 skilled bakers and chefs.

In true cultural style, we exited through the gift shop laden with branded and unbranded coffee accessories, hessian sacks and bags. After picking up a couple of gifts we left feeling buzzy and excitable, and not just because of the caffeine. Starbucks has excelled itself with this truly groundbreaking retail experience, and we duly doff our branded gift-shop caps.



Sean Dwyer

The rise of brandless branding


In a world where logo tees reign supreme and brand-babble is a language in and of itself, a curious phenomenon is afoot. The brandless brand. That pared back packaging, those no-nonsense labels – it’s branding, Jim, but not as we know it. We take a look at a few brands who are doing ‘brandless’ their way.

Going brandless, literally

One US online grocery retailer has taken the concept to its logical conclusion and called itself Brandless. There’s very much still a brand identity – think muted colours and honest labelling – but, in a bid to keep their prices low, they’ve cut out everything that could be considered Brand Tax™. By running their own delivery system and retailing online, for example, they’ve been able to up their quality while keeping their prices at $3, for everything. Consumers appreciate the honesty and feel like they’re getting a great deal – it’s pretty clever. See also, Target’s Smartly range, with 70 items of life essentials, many for under $2.


Eating, unbranded

The brandless revolution stretches way beyond mere FMCG and has taken a delicious leap into eateries. Take Tommi’s Burger Joint. Nestled into London’s busy Brewer Street, it has the kind of thrown-together, oh-so cool styling you’d expect to find in a late-night bar. The vibe is relaxed, the patrons are stylish, and the menu? Painstakingly designed on expensive paper stock with a prominent logo at the top? Not for Tommi. Try four delectable burgers and two sides scribbled on a piece of cardboard. The lack of branding becomes its own brand, and right now that feels so fresh.


The Muji way

And then there’s Muji. The grand-daddy of brandless branding. Taking its name from ‘Mujirushi Ryohin’, which literally means ‘no brand quality goods’, it channels a clean, minimalist aesthetic, and its products are designed as empty vessels for customers to use as they wish. You won’t find a trace of branding on any Muji product or in a Muji retail space – even product messaging is scaled back to a minimum to allow the pieces to take centre stage.

What does it all mean?

If the purpose of branding is to create a shortcut for the brain and help us make quick, informed decisions, why the sudden do-down of everything brand engineers hold dear? Well, authenticity is name of the game. A brandless brand doesn’t feel like its selling to consumers – we feel like we’re getting a good deal, we’re in on the secret, sticking it to the man. Smartphones mean we have endless information at our fingertips. If we’ve seen a branded product once, we’ve seen it a million times. So it makes sense that sellers with a scaled-back identity feel new and exciting. What’s the next step? Do away with packaging all together? There’s an eco movement already working on it – we’re interested to see where this trend takes us.



Sean Dwyer

The future of retail is in the hands of Gen Z

Gen Z

Forget millennials – enter Gen Z. Aged 24 and younger, with famously short attention spans and an insatiable appetite to have-everything-right-now-and-if-they-have-to-wait-a-second-for-it-to-load-they’ll-give-up, the next generation are set to have huge influence on the retail market. What do we know about them that can help retail brands prepare for the future?

Recently, there’s been an influx of findings telling us that, contrary to popular assumption, digitally-savvy Gen Z-ers are actually more traditional when it comes to shopping – especially compared to their predecessors, the Millennials. A major pan-European study found that nearly a quarter of Gen Z do their research and purchasing in store, compared to only 14% of Millennials (Retail Buying Study 2018). And in the UK, the same study found that 56% of Gen Z respondents said they most prefer to shop in a physical store.

Does this really suggest that the next generation have reverted back to the ye olden days? If we dig a little deeper, we find that 84% Gen Zers report that they make shopping part of their day out (Retail Assist, 2018). With under 24-year olds much more likely to have free time on their hands, this makes sense. So, is the question for retailers actually about how to keep the shopping spark alive as this audience grows up?

Merging the online in the offline
The obvious answer lies in technology. Gen Z are the first group to grow up with mini computers in their pocket, learning to tap before they can talk. Smartphones live perpetually in either their pockets or hands, so it’s inevitable they feature heavily when they’re shopping in stores.
When shopping in store, according to the National Retail Federation and the IBM Institute for Business Value, 52% of Gen Z compare prices with other retailers, while a whopping 73% interact with social media, telling family and friends that they’re shopping and asking for advice on what to buy. Furthermore, as they’re making their decision, 51% hunt down a coupon, discount or promotion.
A good Wi-Fi connection, therefore, is clearly a must. But is there more that can be done? Retailers should be wary of going overboard, and ensure tech they provide supports a simple and intuitive shopping experience, as this group will see straight through gimmicks. As one might expect for these digital natives, Gen Z are considerably more open to personalisation, with one study by the NRF and IBM reporting that over half feel comfortable sharing their personal data in order to ensure a customised experience, compared to 41% in mature markets. When assured their data will be properly protected, this increases to 61%, highlighting trust as a key theme.

The future’s social
For brands looking to capture and keep this generation, social media has to be a huge focal point. Whereas first adopters of social media joined Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are more popular Gen Z – these primarily visual apps offer an ideal spot to capture an attentive (or addicted?) audience. As time-poor as Gen Z may become as they enter emerging adulthood, you can bet they’ll always find time for social media. And with the tech supporting direct sales via these apps becoming more prevalent, the gap between content and sales is closing fast.

It’s a changing world out there, and never has a Darwin-esque quote been more relevant: “It’s not the strongest retailer that survives, but the ones most responsive to change”.



Sean Dwyer

< PreviousNext >