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4 ways Asia is supercharging retail with tech-enabled physical experiences

Alibaba and Ford's car vending machine
Alibaba and Ford’s car vending machine

Much has been said about the death of the store at the hands of the digital era, but retailers and brands with physical footprints are increasingly harnessing technology to instil a sense of connectivity and immersion in their spaces.

Front and center within that is the Asia market, which is setting the standard by responding to consumers’ avid connected behavior and facilitating increasingly digitized physical journeys that perfectly blend both realities.

Here, we highlight four of our favorite recent brand examples.

Ford and Alibaba’s unstaffed car vending machine

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba has partnered with automaker Ford on a cat-shaped car vending machine in China that allows potential buyers the chance to try-before-they-buy. The structure, located in Guangzhou, is completely self-directed and available only to Alibaba’s Super Members, the highest tier of membership in the retailer’s program.

Once users go through a background check on the Alibaba app, they can select their preferred vehicle and head to one of the Super Test-Drive Centers. Arriving at the location, they can use either facial recognition or a login code to trigger the test-drive experience, which they can do for up to three days.

Starbucks’ augmented coffee mecca
Starbucks Reserve Roastery AR experience
Starbucks Reserve Roastery AR experience

Starbucks meanwhile is focusing on augmented reality in its new Shanghai Reserve Roastery, where the coffee brand tapped into the Chinese consumer’s mobile-first behavior by creating a digital scavenger hunt.

Available through Taobao, consumers have to scan a code in-store and then proceed to scan coffee machines and brewers around the store to trigger content. Doing so with such physical objects activates animations on the mobile screen, and then offers the user more information on the coffee making process, such as how specific machines roast the coffee.

By offering consumers more branded storytelling through mobile, the company aligns with its Reserve Roastery concept ethos, which is to act as a mecca on all things coffee-making, and serve avid customers accordingly.

Shiseido’s smart diagnosis and brand content mirrors
Shiseido's smart mirror
Shiseido’s smart mirror

Smart mirrors might not be anything new within the ‘tech in-store’ discussion, but at Shiseido’s recently opened flagship in the Ginza Six shopping complex in Tokyo, the connected device offers more granular and personalized content than we’ve seen before, including around diagnosis.

Customers visiting the store can have their picture taken by a smart mirror, which results in a skin analysis and step-by-step guidance on screen on how to apply a curation of products. Afterwards, users can scan a QR code generated on the screen to put their counselling data on their own phone.

Additional features in Shiseido’s tech-enabled store, include screens that change visuals whenever someone is within two meters of them, as well as smart tables that recognize when a specific product has been picked up, and generate information on a smart screen accordingly.

Jack & Jones and Vero Moda’s facial recognition payments
Jack & Jones
Jack & Jones

You can’t talk about Asia without mentioning WeChat, and in this instance the future of payments. Danish fashion brands Jack & Jones and Vero Moda, part of the Bestseller group, have recently opened smart stores in two Chinese locations that are powered by Tencent’s facial recognition technology, allowing customers to pay with their face.

Located in Shenzhen and Guangzhou, the smart stores allow shoppers to shop without the need for cash or even their mobile phones. After completing the facial recognition registration at digital kiosks in-store, shoppers become members of the Tencent’s “AI Club”, which is powered by WeChat Pay. When checking out, they can then use the feature to complete the payment, which is debited through their WeChat wallets.

Beyond cashless (and mobile-less) payment capabilities, the entire store experiences can be automated. At the fitting room, the same technology is applied – once the shopper is recognized by a smart screen, they can receive recommendations based on past purchases.

Blocks e-commerce

Alibaba’s Taobao gets serious about luxury


Alibaba’s getting serious about the quality of the goods on its platforms and wants to attract more high-end brands. How’s it going to do it? The poacher is turning gamekeeper. The e-commerce giant frequently criticised for allowing counterfeit or low quality goods onto its sites is teaming up with four third-party inspection agencies to boost the quality of products sold on its C2C Taobao site.

The company has already boosted the high-end credentials of its B2C platform Tmall and last year Burberry became the first luxury brand to open a virtual shopfront there (as pictured below).

Now it’s Taobao’s turn. The aim is to help Taobao satisfy consumer demand for better quality and also help local manufacturers improve their offer. In the process Taobao could shift slightly from its original C2C marketplace concept. As more reputable manufacturers see it as a channel through which they can sell their products (without being tainted by an image of poor quality and rampant counterfeiting) change is inevitable.

Anyway, the four agencies Taobao is linking with all have heavyweight credentials and include Swiss inspection & certification agency SGS, Germany’s TUV, French agency Bureau Veritas, and the China Certification and Inspection Group.


The company is spending billions in order to attract over 10,000 higher quality manufacturers to set up shop on Taobao and it has a target of CNY100bn (that’s nearly $16bn) for such goods.

Earlier this year Taobao set up a vertical channel for high-end Chinese manufacturers and more than 4,500 of them have set up stores already, with sales of over CNY15bn expected by year-end.

The move makes good business sense. Taobao itself has said its growth has been slowing down as it’s struggled to remove low quality goods and counterfeits from the site. It should also reduce the chances of it being sued as it has been in the past. Only this year Gucci owner Kering sued Alibaba, claiming over 2,700 different Taobao sellers were offering 37,000 counterfeit Gucci bags in one month alone.

The challenge ahead for Taobao is huge. Will luxury labels think it’s doing enough? We’ll have to wait and see.

This post first appeared on, a style-meets-business blog by journalist, trends specialist and business analyst, Sandra Halliday