Beijing’s subway is not for the faint-hearted. After 10 months in this city, I’ve finally mastered the art of travelling in its massive underground subway system without getting flustered.
Here’s how it works: During peak hours, a train rolls in (and mind you, there is never a delay), and it is already packed to the gills. The doors fling open, and the train spews out a surging mass of people. Another swarm, which has queued up patiently so far, rushes in at the first opportunity. And the last few stragglers gauge from outside that there is perhaps only a millimetre of space left; so they lunge their bodies inside with all the force they can muster, giving everyone a mighty push even as the subway door starts closing.
There are days when something gets caught within the doors, but most of the time, subway workers outside (easily recognisable due to their red armbands) manage to push an assortment of clothes, bags and limbs just in time.
Getting yourself in is half the battle won–surviving the journey in the packed compartment and then elbowing your way out is the other half. And thus it never fails to surprise me that several Beijingers in this filled-to-the-gills train are glued to their iPhones, iPads or cheap shanzhai rip-offs (feature-phones, by the way, are already pre-historic in this country) watching movies, playing games, reading e-books or surfing the internet.
When I change subway lines, I have to walk through a slow-moving mass of humanity for about 10 minutes. Even while walking, these people are glued to their phones and tablets, never minding where or what they step onto.
3G users in China recently breached the 200-million mark, making the internet even more ubiquitous. Here’s the interesting part: China took two years to reach the 100-million mark since 3G was introduced in 2009, and only one more year to double that.
Chinese e-commerce players are trying to make the most of this spurt. While e-commerce sales done through PCs still dominate, mobile commerce is on the upsurge. According to internet market research firm iResearch, mobile commerce in the second quarter of 2012, 4.3 percent of e-commerce purchases will be made on mobiles – up from a mere 1.1 percent at the same point last year.
Yu, formerly a professor at the University of Texas, Austin’s McCombs School of Business, is bent upon finding new consumers in the Beijing and Shanghai subways. He might just be on to something. He is trying to monetise what marketers call the consumer’s “fragmented time” – their commute, for instance, when they have nothing much to do but stare at their phones.
“I see that people use their fragmented time – for example, they shop when they take buses, when they take the subway…they shop anywhere,” he told me in an interview. (The first part of the interview is here.)
Some time last year, Yihaodian tested this idea by setting up a bunch of virtual supermarkets in select locations on Beijing and Shanghai’s subway network. It was a smart idea from the word ‘go’ – most of the urban population in China is very tech-savvy and quick to latch on to things like this. It also cuts out your mandatory visit to the grocery store, which office-goers in a bustling metropolis like Beijing or Shanghai find hard to do anyway.
Yihaodian’s experiment has few parallels across the world (among the handful of companies that do something similar, Tesco has virtual supermarkets in Korea and the UK, and Woolworths operates such things in Australia).
Yihaodian’s virtual supermarkets display ‘stacks’ of goods pretty much like your neighbourhood Wal-Mart or Carrefour. The only difference is that the virtual supermarket has images of the product instead of the product itself. As you walk down the subway station you can review the supermarket ‘aisles’. All you have to do is scan the QR codes of the things you need on your smartphone and ‘check out’. The goods are delivered at your doorstep within 24 hours.
Yu means business here. He is planning to open 1,000 such outlets across China. Yihaodian is not the only one in this space, but is perhaps one of the most innovative.
Recently Wal-Mart, which has had its fair share of challenges in the Chinese market, picked up a 51 percent stake in the company clearly showing that the future of retail in China lies in e-commerce.
Mobile commerce is just one area that is poised to boom. China’s e-commerce revolution is giving fertile ground to other innovations, such as social commerce. But that’s the subject of another post.