Many restaurants in malls now operate as much as delivery dispatch centers as dine-in joints.
The recency of China’s economic rise means there is a huge opportunity to innovate by designing buildings with the latest digital technologies and behaviors in mind, and to rethink building spaces that converge online and offline experiences.
Shopping malls are prevalent across China. According to real-estate firm CBRE, some 4,600 malls exist today and China accounted for over half the world’s malls built since 2015. The recent drive to clean up city streets has further cemented shopping malls as the main hub and attraction in terms of food experiences. And because of the rapid rise of food delivery — which effectively means that every restaurant in a mall is a food-delivery service — malls have unexpectedly become de-facto dispatch centers for food-delivery services.
However, other food retailers are also taking a delivery-oriented approach to business. Grocery startup Hema, which is part of Alibaba’s group of companies, leverages its high-traffic locations to operate as both walk-in stores and delivery dispatch centers. Its many locations in central Shanghai, for example, give it the advantage of coverage and proximity to customers.
Luckin Coffee, the self-proclaimed main competitor to Starbucks in China, operates what appear to be walk-in stores, but are in reality dispatch centers for fulfilling online orders. If you physically visit one of their “stores”, you will be asked to order your coffee using their app.
The experience of these mixed retail/delivery spaces is impressive. Hema is at once an Amazon fulfillment centre and a supermarket, and even operates several restaurants inside its stores. (Diners can select fresh fish from a tank and get it cooked to order at the food court.) These spaces are inhabited by real customers, who wander about tasting products that are algorithmically curated using Alibaba’s local e-commerce data, and by digital customers, as embodied by delivery workers dashing around with smartphones to scan QR codes and filling shopping bags that are placed on an overhead conveyor belt, to be carried to fleets of scooters waiting just outside the mall. Inevitably, too, the stores are cashless.
This is a 12-part series on Food Megacity: how urbanization and technology are changing the way China eats. The full series can be found here.