At the entrance of the grocery store is a life-sized, plastic blue hippo. Next to the statue, a young man stands half-erect, staring at the floor. As I walk into the grocery store, my gaze pauses on the young man. Ostensibly, he was hired to watch over the entrance. But, in fact, he seems more interested in the floor. I break my gaze and move deeper into the labyrinth of Alaskan king crab, fish tanks, and pop up food carts. It’s lunchtime and I’m hungry.
My destination for lunch today is the grocery store chain called HeMa (盒吗), which is a phonetic play on the characters for hippo (河马) in Mandarin. It is also the word that Alibaba (阿里巴巴) has chosen for their most-recent venture into “new retail”, a phrase that the media likes to bandy about in order to avoid saying “human obsolescence retail.”
Walking around the “human obsolesce retail” store, it feels like someone decided to mash up a food court with an aquarium alongside a tailor, a man selling Maotai (茅台), and a few rows of imported goods all the while muttering chabuduo. Of course, not all HeMa’s have restaraunts, and I am thankful that mine is an exception, as there is a reasonably priced option for stir fried Australian beef complete with salad and rice.
I spend most of my time at the HeMa eating beef over rice and drinking a fizzy drink from one of their many coolers around the perimeter of dining tables and plastic chairs. Despite the background song making me feel like I want to hit someone or something, (imagine “Feel happy, happy, today!” on constant repeat), I can generally enjoy myself there while taking a break from work.
The toughest thing to get used to about HeMa is that there are no cashiers and the only way to purchase groceries is through the stores’ app. There are other differences too, such as the lack of domestic products and emphasis on imported goods and seafood, which is frustrating when the only thing you buy at the grocery market is a one-kilo bag of oatmeal and bananas, essentially only providing 1/2 of the items required.
The business case for new retail seems to be 1) reducing employee overhead and 2) collecting customer data. Alibaba’s famous payment platform, Alipay, connects seamlessly with the app, allowing customers to make all purchases through their phones.
Of course, calling your supermarket a “hippo” is a clever way to distract everyone from the fact that this store is just one more use case for how automation is being implemented both in China and on the global scale. It almost makes it easy for me to ignore the disheveled young security guard on my way out of the grocery store, carrying a container of Australian beef on rice, bananas, and pineapple slices.
The thing about the future is that we never think it’s going to come until it shows up. Life-sized, blue, and completely plastic.