Coronavirus v in-store experience

For the last few weeks, due to the coronavirus outbreak, many in China have been living their entire worlds online. With many supermarkets closed, people turned to eCommerce for their daily produce needs. With schools closed, cloud technology-based online classrooms have been set up. With corporate employees working from home, entire IT systems have seemingly been reconfigured overnight to support everything from “clocking in” to hosting video conferences. In fact, even as some companies have slowly resumed operations, China’s big cities have adjusted to not just relying on online for convenience, but to living their lives online.

This raises the question – in this online-heavy world, is there in fact a role for bricks & mortar stores? After all, they’ve been closed for a few weeks now in order to reduce human-to-human contact, and life has generally kept on.

The answer is, yes, absolutely – in this online-heavy reality, bricks & mortar stores are the place to experience products, and to be inspired. To borrow a page from Lewis Carroll, they are the modern “wonderlands” of our time.

Wonderland in Chongqing

Rewind a couple months ago to last December. It’s a foggy late Thursday morning in Chongqing, a city in Southwest China that is around the size of the entire country of Austria. Though it is slightly off the beaten path, JD E-Space, a 50,000 square-meter megastore operated by China’s largest retailer, JD.com is clearly visible from hundreds of meters away.

Opened during Singles Day (November 11), it offers consumers the chance to try virtually everything in the store – from go-karts, to vacuum cleaners and more.

A race track on the first floor has go-karts and Segway-like devices from Ninebot, fully-charged. Ninebot is a homegrown Chinese brand, which has traditionally been sold entirely online. It chose E-Space as its first offline location.

This decision reflects a relatively recent shift in the retail industry. Brands which may have once started as offline kiosks, are instead opting to make entirely online debuts. This helps brands minimise overhead costs by not having to pay for large store spaces. Not to mention, reducing the impact of something like the coronavirus. 

Real interaction

With online, the real interaction that consumers have with products before deciding to make a purchase is lacking. E-Space allows customers to drive go-karts in store with the supervision of a Ninebot sales assistant who an expert in product specs. This type of interaction often tips the scale in favor of a purchase. With an omnichannel model, there is no need to take products home from the store. Instead, customers simply scan a QR code and they are delivered later that day or the following, regardless of whether the customer’s home is near E-Space.

The experience economy

E-Space caters to all age groups, and is not just a store but a social space. A group of elderly occupying all 30 or so massage chairs at noon excitedly chatting in Sichuanese suggests this is their regular routine. During the weekend, professional video gaming teams come to E-Space to compete, inviting a young audience who might also play the game. The beauty area offers beauty tutorials, while the bakery area offers courses such as bread making.

Eye-opening

Vacuum cleaners are a product where how much one spends is a mix of financial means, general interest in the product and its overall effectiveness. At E-Space, all vacuums are pre-charged and ready for a test run on the makeshift floor, which combines a strip of carpet, hardwood and marble, while small canisters of different forms of dirt are placed next to each experiential station to sprinkle on the rug – the devil is in the detail!

Mini-CES                                                                    

The third floor is arranged purely by brands and is intended to function like a mini-version of the world famous Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held annually in Las Vegas in January. It gives consumers a chance to get their hands on the latest products as soon as they hit the market.

Taking 15,000 steps (more than taken in an 18-hole golf game) in an offline store seems unfathomable when today, taking 1,000 within a Beijing apartment during self-imposed coronavirus isolation seems like a stretch. Online provides the undeniable convenience that is necessary in this period. But bricks & mortar, gives modern day, busy consumers an opportunity to escape – to immerse themselves in wonderland, for 30 minutes or eight hours.

The coronavirus will eventually pass, and E-Space is ready for when it does.