Over the past 10 years I have extensively researched and written about China’s online developments and new retail. You might wonder why the release of a new book about these subjects still excites me. Though I normally find that I was already aware of 80-90% of the contents of such a book, the remaining 10-20% always offer some nuggets that I have overlooked and help me to get a more complete picture. But even more important, when following developments and news on China’s internet companies on a daily basis, you sometimes don’t see the wood for the trees anymore. At times, my knowledge about China’s internet companies and their countless concepts feels like emptying a big bucket of Lego on the floor: scattered pieces of knowledge in many kind of categories (both in shape and colour). Books like The Future of Global Retail help me to (re)structure my thoughts, look at things from a distance, sort the individual Lego bricks and build something structural from it again. This always helps me in my own writing and public speaking.
Although the writers (Winter Nie, Mark Greeven, Yunfei Feng and James Wang) are all professors and academic researchers, this book was clearly not primarily written for fellow academics. The language is accessible and upbeat and doesn’t get bogged down in unnecessary woolliness. Although the authors sometimes tend to overload the reader with overwhelming (outdated – more on that later) statistics on market value, revenues and more, most of the text is an enjoyable read. You can’t really tell that there’s four different authors at work here and I haven’t detected any clear differences in writing styles. It actually makes me wonder how the work was divided between the four…
When introducing a company, the writers spend some time explaining the background of the founder and his personal history, before diving into the accomplishments of their companies. As such, the approach of the book reminds me a lot of the many podcasts by Techbuzz China, that have a very similar approach. At times, the similarity was so striking that I wondered if the writers had been inspired by that podcast or if one of its hosts, Rui Ma had maybe ghost-written for this book (which she says she hasn’t). Inspiration or not, the result is a very compelling approach of explaining the Chinese platform sector.
Structurally, the book breaks down in three main sections. The first part introduces four foundations of China’s retail revolution: e-commerce, express deliveries, third party payments and social media. A very thoughtful approach that gives the necessary background information and Chinese context on the first 10-15 years of Chinese online commerce and how it formed the basis for what was to follow.
The second part looks at what it calls ‘five stages of new retail’: location-based e-commerce (Meituan, Ele.me, etc), fresh food (Hema, Missfresh, etc), social commerce (Pinduoduo, Xiaohongshu), live-streaming e-commerce (Viya, Li Jiaqi) and ‘ultimate experience retail’. The latter includes experience-based online influencers like ‘countryside queen’ Li Ziqi and virtual idol Luo Tianyi. I’m less convinced by the link between these and new retail, but okay…
The last part of the book (‘making sense of new retail’) first discusses the changing landscape with Baidu falling behind Tencent and Alibaba and Bytedance taking its place as one of the ‘three kingdoms’. In its final ten pages it also (unconvincingly) tries to show what China’s new retail might mean for the rest of the world. This last section of the book is actually the weakest. It has a bit too much repetition of what’s already been said, feels like a rushed afterthought and suddenly throws in some unexplained cases (‘Wu Dao’, ‘Mashangfangxin’?), out-of-the-blue concepts (surplus food stores) while missing a good conclusion or epilogue.
Despite the disappointing closing, the book holds a really good overview of how e-commerce and new retail developed in China over the past two decades. While not being 100% complete (more on this later) it’s probably one of the best publications available on the topic.
Having said all of that…
… the book does have some flaws.
Let’s start with the title. ‘The Future of Global Retail’ is of course a title that makes potential buyers, who might not necessarily be all that interested in China, curious and thus sells books. But the book really is about Chinese retail. While the writers are trying to distil learnings from China’s retail revolution (and hence the secondary title, ‘Learning from China’s Retail Revolution’, is much more accurate) the book does not really deal with what is changing in global retail. In fact, they conclude that maybe not all of China’s developments can be easily copied to the west, and while giving a lot of food for thought and questions for western companies to consider, there is really no primary focus on global retail. No, the title is FOMO at its best.
While not mentioned in the titles, the book discusses ‘new retail’. It is a concept that was first coined by Alibaba around 2016, but the writers have no problem broadening the scope and pulling many other types of online commerce under the umbrella of new retail, even things that existed well before the term was ever mentioned. Although highly interesting, you can debate if Meituan, Xiaohongshu, live commerce and online celebrities like Li Ziqi should really be considered ‘new retail’. Maybe this is all semantics, but I do want to mention that while using this broad approach, the writers also leave out a lot of other aspects of new retail. Things I’m missing are unmanned stores (while the book does mention Amazon Go), co-branded Tmall stores full of electronic gimmicks, Alibaba and JD’s integration with convenience stores (Linshoutong, Xintonglu), Alibaba’s investment in Sun Art and the transformation of its RT-Mart and Auchan stores into Hema-like concepts, etc. While not all of these might be the most successful of concepts and sometimes even more than PR than anything else, there is a lot to learn from these cases and they should be part of the story in my opinion.
The book also seems to have missed an important driver for new retail: the rising acquisition costs for online customers that drove many internet companies to acquire customers offline before pulling them into their online ecosystem. Other omissions concern the book extensively discussing MissFresh, but never mentioning competitor Ding Dong Maicai (which has almost twice as much revenue). And while extensively discussing Pinduoduo’s business model when it tries to make a point that C2M business models might enter the western market, the book ignores one of the most important examples: Shein. All of this wouldn’t be such a problem if the book wouldn’t overemphasise some other, in my opinion, less important aspects.
At times I feel the book is mostly based on desk research and little on the ground experience. I’m missing a critical note to some of the developments, and everything is presented in such a positive manner that I sometimes feel like I’m reading companies’ press releases. My own field work has pointed out substantial gaps between PR and reality. Lack of first-hand experience is also seen in the failure to present an objective opinion about Pinduoduo’s gamification, which is hardly the fun experience it is made out to be (as I have described in a series of articles). And there is no critical note about Alibaba’s Singles’ Day, while there’s enough to complain about.
A challenge about writing a book on China is that things change extremely fast. It’s one reason why I personally focus on writing articles instead of books. The Future of Global Retail shows the disadvantages. You can’t really blame the writers for their extensive focus on live-streamer Viya and not mentioning her downfall after her December 2021 taxation scandal and her subsequent disappearance from the Chinese internet. Luckin Coffee is presented as a failure after its revenue fraud scandal, but the book fails to mention the company’s strong comeback in 2021. Still calling Ant Group ‘Ant Financial’ while it changed its name in 2020 is also a minor gripe. But for a book published in early 2022 that mentions some events of 2021 (e.g., the rectification of the platform sector) it is a bit disappointing that most statistics are from 2019. A lot has changed in 3 years time and you wish the authors had provided more recent figures. I sometimes wonder if the writers have recycled earlier material without being bothered to update the stats. This becomes clear when things get sloppy (claiming that ‘it’s almost 4 years since Jack Ma launched ‘new retail’ in 2016’, while the book is published in 2022).
More serious than outdated stats are claims that are simply incorrect. At one point the text claims that Alibaba had ‘a dozen’ employees in 2009 when it launched Singles Day. At the time almost 12.000 people were working for Alibaba. The text also claims that with the arrival of smartphones ‘Chinese migrated overnight from PC to mobile’. This ignores that a large part of Chinese never owned a desk- or laptop before buying a smartphone, which became their first access to the internet. JD’s community group buying app Jingxi Pinpin is named Xi Pinpin.
The book incorrectly claims that rather than launching a mobile version of QQ, Tencent launched WeChat. In fact, it launched both WeChat and a mobile version of QQ. The book also claims that Tencent only became active with games in the past decade, thereby ignoring that Tencent Games was already founded in 2003. While analysing the possible reasons for Baidu’s decline, the book also fails to identify the common belief that Baidu was lagging in the transition to smartphones. For a book published in 2022, claiming that Bytedance has an advantage because it’s still small and thereby agile compared to Alibaba and Tencent completely misses the fact that Bytedance already had 100.000 employees in 2021.
While overall the book has a good structure, there are cases where terminology is used before it is actually properly explained (C2B, MCN). In the final pages of the book a series of Alibaba brands are introduced that are not explained anywhere in the book and might be unfamiliar to the average reader (Alimama, Alicloud, AliExpress, Jiuhuasuan, eTao).
The book contains quite some typos. While most of these occur in Chinese names (Dainping, Hema Xianshen. Kuiashou, etc) and these might have been difficult to spot by spelling checkers or editors, I do think they are quite unforgivable when they occur in the illustrations in the book (see example below). These illustrations, while fun and light-hearted, are often hard to read (I assume because they have been scaled down so much) or even placed in the wrong chapter (like an illustration of Ele.me and Meituan couriers placed in a different, unrelated chapter).
Should you buy it?
Maybe the fact that the majority of the book is very well done makes all these flaws stand out all the more, like a fly in a delicious soup. I might be splitting hairs over the some of the aforementioned mistakes; that’s just the annoying personal characteristic of being a perfectionist. It’s also part of the reason why I wouldn’t write a book about China tech myself; it’s outdated as soon as it’s printed. Still, this book is mainly trying to look at learnings from the past two decades and as such it is a highly valuable and almost complete description of some of the most important developments in the Chinese e-commerce sphere and digital retail specifically. It deserves to be widely read by anybody interested in this topic and especially retailers that have been myopically following Silicon Valley and ignoring the revolution that took place elsewhere.
Strange enough, while I’m an avid follower of new retail news, I only came across this book by chance. That lack of visibility is a shame because more people should be aware of this publication. Those who are interested in buying a copy have one extra hurdle to overcome though: its hefty price.
On Amazon, this 238-page book is already quite pricey as a paperback (€36,55), but the hardcover is really ridiculously expensive (€155,37). And that excludes shipping costs. Do look for alternative sellers since I have seen substantially lower prices, or go for the slightly cheaper Kindle version available on Amazon.com.
More information on the book can be found at:
https://www.chinanewretail.org (don’t let the dodgy WordPress site turn you off)
https://www.imd.org/book-overview/the-future-of-global-retail/ (includes a preview)