Employees sort boxes and parcels at a JD.com logistics station in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, China.  Picture: Reuters
Employees sort boxes and parcels at a JD.com logistics station in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, China. Picture: Reuters

Beijing — JD.com has opened the first of a chain of hi-tech supermarkets in Beijing, following archrival Alibaba Group Holding into the world of physical retail.

The envisioned chain of 7Fresh stores represent its biggest foray into traditional retail, and like Alibaba it is counting on reaching new customers and securing valuable data by connecting online and offline shopping.

JD’s new stores and Alibaba’s Hema chain both allow shoppers to use a mobile app and digital payments to complement their browsing.

JD, Wal-Mart Stores’ partner in China, is counting on control of its supply chain and long experience sourcing its own inventory to compete with Alibaba, which mostly acts as a platform for other merchants.

The new store in Beijing’s Yizhuang neighbourhood offers features such as screens that display information on items that shoppers pick up, and robot carts that follow customers as they browse the aisles.

Like Hema, it also offers a restaurant and imported fresh food to cater to middle-class tastes.

"JD is uniquely positioned to bring this premium-quality offline shopping experience to Chinese consumers because of our supply-chain technology and scale as the country’s largest retailer," 7Fresh CEO Wang Xiaosong said.

From Alibaba to Tencent, China’s largest internet companies are bent on transforming retail by infusing stores with technology to better manage inventory and customer data.

Wal-Mart and JD, for instance, hope to combine their network of warehouses and cold storage to shorten the time taken for delivery to customers.

The overarching idea is to connect virtual and offline worlds, boosting online orders while amassing valuable customer purchasing data.

They are betting that a move into physical commerce will pump-prime its main online business, rope in millions of new shoppers, and expand its network into a relatively untapped Chinese hinterland.

Alibaba will open 30 Hema supermarkets in Beijing this year, China Daily reported on Thursday.

JD also this week opened the first of an eventual chain of "unmanned" or fully automated convenience stores, in Shandong province.

But 7Fresh represents a fuller retail experience and daily transactions at its maiden outlet have exceeded 10,000 in the first two days of operation, JD.com CEO Richard Liu said in a social media post.

Bloomberg

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