Alibaba Opens Door to O2O Retail

The Economist: “The season for the best xiaolongxia (little dragon shrimp) is just beginning, and so on a recent evening four young friends tucked into a pile of steaming-hot crayfish. But rather than sitting in a restaurant they were at a table surrounded by supermarket aisles stocked with nappies, baby formula and cooking oil … ‘Eat-as-you-shop’ is one innovation of Hema Xiansheng, a chain of fancy supermarkets. And these shops are themselves the showiest elements of a bid by Alibaba … to master ‘online-to-offline’, or O2O, retailing, in which customers use digital channels to buy from physical businesses. Alibaba currently runs 40 Hema stores in ten cities. It wants to open 2,000 in the next five years.”

“Alibaba is hoping to apply its online know-how to them with Ling Shou Tong, a free retail-management platform launched in 2016. Through it, shop owners can order products sourced by Alibaba from partners such as Procter & Gamble. It then uses its logistics affiliate, Cainiao, to ship them. Shops are given advice on what to stock based on Alibaba’s trove of data—plenty of dog food in pooch-loving areas, say. In return Alibaba gets valuable data on spending habits in poorer cities, especially among older shoppers who buy offline.”

“A clearer signal of Alibaba’s ambitions as a provider of services to other outlets came on April 2nd, when it bought the shares it did not already own in Ele.me, valuing the food-delivery platform at $9.5bn. These services span online tools for inventory management to marketing and smartphone payments. They also include labour. Ele.me’s network lets thousands of small restaurants ferry dishes to the doors of some of China’s 700m smartphone users. Through the acquisition Jack Ma, Alibaba’s founder, added 3m delivery people to the 2m of Cainiao, boosting the group’s ‘last-mile’ delivery capabilities.”

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Bingo Box: China Leads Robo-Retail Revolution

The New York Times: “A global race to automate stores is underway among several of the world’s top retailers and small tech start-ups, which are motivated to shave labor costs and minimize shoppers’ frustrations, like waiting for cashiers … Companies are testing robots that help keep shelves stocked, as well as apps that let shoppers ring up items with a smartphone … China, which has its own ambitious e-commerce companies, is emerging as an especially fertile place for these retail experiments.”

“One effort is a chain of more than 100 unmanned convenience shops from a start-up called Bingo Box, one of which sits in a business park in Shanghai. Shoppers scan a code on their phones to enter and, once inside, scan the items they want to buy. The store unlocks the exit door after they’ve paid through their phones … Not to be outdone, JD, another big internet retailer in China … put readable chips on items to automate the checkout process. At its huge campus south of Beijing, JD is testing a new store that relies on computer vision and sensors on the shelves to know when items have been taken.”

“While such technologies could improve the shopping experience, there may also be consequences that people find less desirable. Retailers like Amazon could compile reams of data about where customers spend time inside their doors, comparable to what internet companies already know about their online habits … In China, there is less public concern about data privacy issues. Many Chinese citizens have become accustomed to high levels of surveillance, including widespread security cameras and government monitoring of online communications.”

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Mastodon: The Anti-Facebook?

The Washington Post: “Mastodon, a Twitter-like social network has had a massive spike in sign-ups … As the #DeleteFacebook movement has gained steam, people are registering for Mastodon at four times the rate that they normally do, according to Eugen Rochko, the service’s creator. Between Monday and Tuesday alone, Mastodon gained about 5,800 new users … That’s more new registrations than what Mastodon typically sees over an entire week.”

“For a social network — Mastodon has 1.1 million users to Facebook’s 2.2 billion — that may not sound very impressive. But what makes Mastodon increasingly attractive, particularly in a post-#DeleteFacebook world, is its attitude toward data and control … Mastodon’s code is open-source, meaning anybody can inspect its design. It’s distributed, meaning that it doesn’t run in some data center controlled by corporate executives but instead is run by its own users who set up independent servers. And its development costs are paid for by online donations, rather than through the marketing of users’ personal information.”

“Rooted in the idea that it doesn’t benefit consumers to depend on centralized commercial platforms sucking up users’ personal information, these entrepreneurs believe they can restore a bit of the magic from the Internet’s earlier days — back when everything was open and interoperable, not siloed and commercialized.”

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Ac2ated Sound: The Car is the HiFi

The New York Times: “Continental, a German auto-components supplier, has developed technology that makes parts of the car’s interior vibrate to create high-fidelity audio on a par with any premium sound system on the road now. The approach turns the rear window into a subwoofer. The windshield, floor, dashboard and seat frames produce the midrange. And the A-pillars — the posts between the windshield and the doors — become your tweeters, said Dominik Haefele, the leader of the team that developed the technology.” He comments: “It’s a 3-D immersive sound, and you’re experiencing the music in a very different way. You’re in the sound. You feel it all around you, like you’re adding another dimension to it.”

“The key components are transducers — small devices that use a magnet wrapped in a copper coil to convert electrical energy into mechanical energy. Run current through the wires, and the transducer vibrates. Continental has figured out a way to implant transducers in a car’s interior and use them to turn interior panels into speakers.”

“The system, which Continental calls Ac2ated Sound, should begin appearing by 2021, Mr. Haefele said. He declined to name the carmakers that will offer it, although Mercedes, BMW and Audi are all big customers — and frequent adopters — of Continental’s technology.”

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Blackberry Keeps Coterie of Devotees

The Wall Street Journal: “The BlackBerry began life as a text pager, created in 1996 by Canadian company Research in Motion Ltd. The founders made technical breakthroughs that popularized world-wide phone texting and mobile email. Its keyboard buttons looked a little like the kernels in a blackberry, hence the name. It transformed the way people worked … But in 2007 Apple Inc. introduced the iPhone, and Android smartphones, also with touch screens, came soon after. Unlike BlackBerry with its office focus, they aimed at the mass market. Today BlackBerry has a global smartphone market share of less than 1%.”

“The diminished band of devotees must suffer for that devotion, as friends brandish other iPhone and Android devices loaded with top-of-the-line cameras and countless apps. At a rugby tournament in Vancouver in early March, Tim Powers, an Ottawa executive, says he was ‘chastised’ for using his BlackBerry. He is willing to bear these slings and arrows. The keyboard suits ‘an old rugby player with some beaten-up hands,’ he says. Also, ‘I am not gentle,’ Mr. Powers says. ‘I almost feel like I could shoot it and it would still work’ … BlackBerrys, says Andrew Stivelman, a technical writer in Toronto, are ‘built like a tank’.”

“Although the company, now named BlackBerry Ltd. , no longer makes the phones, they live on through licensing agreements with companies that make and sell BlackBerry-branded hardware with Android operating systems … Meanwhile, fans of BlackBerrys wax lyrical about features like a curved shape that fits the hand, writing in forums such as There’s magic in BlackBerry 10 on Crackberry.com . A bonus, wrote one person last year, is reduced theft risk, ‘because thieves don’t know what they are’.”

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Profits Eat the App-etite for Delivery Services

The New Yorker: “In 2016, delivery transactions made up about seven per cent of total U.S. restaurant sales. In a research report published last June, analysts at Morgan Stanley predicted that that number could eventually reach forty per cent of all restaurant sales, and an even higher percentage in urban areas and among casual restaurants, where delivery is concentrated. Companies like GrubHub maintain that the revenue they bring restaurants is ‘incremental’—the cherry on top, so to speak, of whatever sales the place would have done on its own.”

“They also argue that delivery orders are a form of marketing, exposing potential new customers who might convert to lucrative in-restaurant patrons. The problem is that as consumers use services like Uber Eats and Seamless for a greater share of their meals, delivery orders are beginning to replace some restaurants’ core business instead of complementing it … And, as delivery orders replace profitable takeout or sit-down sales with less profitable ones—ostensibly giving restaurants business but effectively taking it away—the ‘incremental’ argument no longer holds.”

“DoorDash, an Uber Eats competitor, has started to experiment with leasing remote kitchen space to restaurants so that they can expand their delivery radii. If such practices catch on, it’s easy to imagine a segment of the restaurant economy that looks a lot like, well, Uber, with an army of individual restaurants designed to serve the needs of middle-man platforms but struggling to make a living themselves.”

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Retail Theater: The Shellfish Spa

Supermarket News: “Retailers say making the shopping trip an experience is one way they can drive traffic into their stores. And a little theater in the seafood department is actually helping to drive sales, according to one Northeast retailer, Shoprite, which has added the Shellfish Spa. The device preserves live product such as clams, oysters, mussels, steamers and cockles while presenting them in an eye-catching display. The container bathes shellfish in a continuous stream of saltwater and maintains an ocean-like environment for peak freshness.”

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Drone Promo: The Kentucky Flying Object

The Verge: KFC’s “new, India-only Smoky Grilled Wings will come packaged in a box with detachable drone parts. Although customers will have to look up instructions online, they can eventually assemble the box and its parts to turn it into a Bluetooth-connected drone.”

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‘Stealing’ at the Amazon Go

Nick Wingfield: “There were a little over 3.5 million cashiers in the United States in 2016 — and some of their jobs may be in jeopardy if the technology behind Amazon Go eventually spreads. For now, Amazon says its technology simply changes the role of employees — the same way it describes the impact of automation on its warehouse workers … Store employees mill about ready to help customers find items, and there is a kitchen next door with chefs preparing meals for sale in the store. Because there are no cashiers, an employee sits in the wine and beer section of the store, checking I.D.s before customers can take alcohol off the shelves.”

“At Amazon Go, checking out feels like — there’s no other way to put it — shoplifting. It is only a few minutes after walking out of the store, when Amazon sends an electronic receipt for purchases, that the feeling goes away.”

“A big unanswered question is where Amazon plans to take the technology. It won’t say whether it plans to open more Amazon Go stores, or leave this as a one-of-a-kind novelty. A more intriguing possibility is that it could use the technology inside Whole Foods stores … There’s even speculation that Amazon could sell the system to other retailers, much as it sells its cloud computing services to other companies. For now, visitors to Amazon Go may want to watch their purchases: Without a register staring them in the face at checkout, it’s easy to overspend.”

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Are You Smarter Than a Kohler Toilet?

The Wall Street Journal: “For some innovators, the next frontier is the room in your house most likely to have a lock on the door: the bathroom. Showcasing their goods at this year’s CES tech show, these companies acknowledge a need for privacy in that inner sanctum—then proceed to show off cameras, microphones and other sensors they’d like you to install there … consider a mirror that turns on motion-activated lights when you get up in the middle of the night, or tells you the weather in the morning. Consider setting the shower on to the perfect temperature just by asking, before you climb in. There are even ‘intelligent’ toilets in the works though how intelligent they’ll be remains to be seen.”

“Some startups see the bathroom the way others now look at the automobile: ready for an open-platform operating system of its own. CareOS—a subsidiary of a French firm which also owns connected toothbrush maker Kolibree—designed an entire health and beauty hub … While a camera in the bathroom sounds like something you’d want to cover with duct tape, CareOS chief technology officer Ali Mouizina says all of your data is stored locally. The system won’t even share it with any other smart home or media hubs in your house, unless you want it to. After all, he said, the bathroom is ‘a private place, a very special place’.”

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