China’s commercial culture has long been unfriendly to innovation. Hierarchical regimentation reigns. “Reform” is incremental. But the blistering success of Hema, a chain of supermarkets owned by e-commerce behemoth Alibaba Group, proves large Chinese corporations do have the capacity to be revolutionary.
There are 25 Hema supermarkets in China, with plans to open dozens more this year, and they’re central to Alibaba’s push for “new retail,” or blending online and offline experiences. They have in-store restaurants so shoppers can select live seafood and eat on the spot. (The Chinese are so obsessed with freshness that there are two words for the concept, one for “crisp” fruits and vegetables and another for fresh-from-the-slaughterhouse meats.) Online shoppers receive free delivery within 30 minutes. The combination of a user-friend app and barcodes on all items provides merchandise information, including sourcing, brand heritage, price points and nutritional value. In a country that’s becoming a wallet-free society, you can purchase with Alipay, the Alibaba-affiliated digital payment system that has over 520 million users.