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What does the FMCG giant Unilever have in common with grocery retailer The Kroger and a luxury watch brand Audemars Piguet?

The answer is Retail-as-a-Service (RaaS).

Unilever worked with JD.com to distribute goods to both online and physical stores in China, while Audemars Piguet launched its pop-up store on WeChat. In the US, food store The Kroger partnered with Microsoft to increase the level of personalization and productivity in their stores.

The term ‘RaaS’ has clamoring over the headlines over the years, but what exactly is Retail-as-a-Service?

What Is Retail-as-a-Service and Why Is It Becoming a Trend?

An analyst from Kantar Retail, Stephen Mader, defines the Retail-as-a-Service model as when “retailers build open platforms and toolkits that enable brands and third-party sellers to connect with shoppers directly through a physical store”.

Having an abundance of data in hands, these retailers bundle up services, customer data, technology, and its expertise to offer brands a service.

The emergence of ecommerce has reduced the in-store retail visits by billions in the US and part of the reason is because the experience offered by a traditional physical store is no longer enough for the savvy consumers. Besides shopping for products, consumers are slowly and surely seeking an experience when they’re out visiting the store.

“Nearly 3,800 stores are expected to close their doors by year’s end, and the brands that do survive will have done so by creating engrossing experiences.”

In order for the brands to maximize the potential of offline stores effectively, they need to provide engaging experiences to keep the consumers hooked. For example, Sephora combined activities that are completely unrelated to making a purchase into its app, while Samsung’s pop-up store was set up to allows consumers test its technology and experience rather than to focus on sale.

The trend also drives the growth of RaaS platform startups that provide an easy, cost-effective solution to brands wanting to launch physical stores.

In the US, a “Retail as-a-Service” startup b8ta has helped retailers such as Macy’s, Lowe’s, and 15 other consumer brands to set up pop-up stores and physical shops, incorporating technologies and cutting-edge gimmicks to traditional physical retailers.

Chicago-based Leap recently secured $3 million in funding to offer an end-to-end service — that ranges from staffing, experiential design, tech integration, and day-to-day operations — to help digital brands to launch a brick-and-mortar store.

Meanwhile, Fourpost is focusing on providing a ready-to-use retail space for digital native brands looking to open a physical store in the US, lowering the barrier of entry in terms of both capital and time. Each of these companies is tackling the problems that usually came with setting up an offline store and elevate the consumer experience.

“If you shop in one of our stores, you will feel different because we have gone to such a great length to remove the idea of your visit being about buying a product.” – Vibhu Norby, the co-founder and CEO of b8ta.

With over 70 locations, B8ta’s store allows brands to place their merchants and train shop assistants while gaining revenue from space rental and subscription fees from brands; Retail Dive

JD.com spurns the growth of RaaS in Asia

Chinese ecommerce giant JD.com is a big advocate of the strategy.

One of JD.com’s latest initiative to establish RaaS is the partnership with Chinese retailer Better Life. JD.com was also one of the first retailers to develop a mini ecommerce program on WeChat. To date, JD.com has developed and bundled up its marketing, logistics, financial services, and big data as a service and leverage these capabilities to help over 2,000 brands and its merchants.

JD.com also partnered with Google to develop next-generation retail infrastructure solutions by combining JD.com’s supply chain and logistics expertise and Google’s technology strengths.

All of these were the result of JD.com’s mission to go forward by scaling its technology in order to outsource its developments to third-party retailers around the world. Chen Zhang, Chief Technology Officer at JD.com says that making money is not their priority at this stage as he believes that:

“With Scalability, comes profit”

Taking the burgeoning amount of investment coming from China to the region into consideration, it’s only a matter of time for RaaS to kick off in Southeast Asia.

In Indonesia, JD.com has already started the concept on its unmanned store JD.ID X Mart. The store collected data that can be used to understand shopping behavior and optimize inventory, product displays, and other aspects of store management and marketing.

With JD.com’s joint-venture in Thailand, it’s fair to assume that the market will be the next destination for the innovation. And although Alibaba’s Lazada has been quiet on the front, looking at the fierce competition between the companies in the mainland, it seems like a matter of time until Alibaba does so.

Inside JD.ID X Mart in Indonesia. It is JD.com’s first unmanned store outside of China and it is a demonstration of JD.com’s mission to implement RaaS; Pandaily

With the ‘offline is the new online’ trend carried over to 2019, we can expect to see more traditional retailers offering their service and retail space to help online brands expanding their reach and getting more foot traffic in return.

A win-win strategy for the ever-changing landscape of retail.

Recently in the news, Starbucks opened a new Roastery outlet on Nanjing Road in Shanghai last week begging the question, so what?

There’s nothing surprising about a new Starbucks in China, except this is now the world’s largest one at 30,000 sqm, twice the size of its counterparts in the US and will be the first-ever to incorporate in-store augmented reality (AR), thanks to China’s most influential internet company – Alibaba.

What can consumers do in this store powered by Alibaba’s technology and Mobile Taobao app?

  • Access a detailed map of the floors and menu with Alibaba’s location-based technology
  • Save favorite Starbucks products to their Mobile Taobao account
  • Scan key features around the Roastery to get information on coffee bars, brewing methods via animations
  • Earn a customized photo filter for sharing on social media
  • Ultimately, appeal to the digitally savvy Chinese audience

Sure, China is an attractive market to invest in but what is Starbucks planning with its“most ambitious project ever”?

An augmented reality app is used in the new Starbucks Roastery in Shanghai, China. Photographed on Friday, December 1, 2017. (Joshua Trujillo, Starbucks)

Slow Growth Around the World

Starbucks second quarterly earnings reported $5.29 billion, short $120 million of the expected $5.41 billion. While the coffee giant has found great success in its 46 years because of its consistent and convenient services and products, the company has felt the squeeze of rising competition from convenience stores and fast-food chains like McDonalds aggressively improving the quality and pricing of its beverages and menu.

And so, to capitalize on a blue ocean, the company decided to focus on a region where coffee culture is only emerging

Revenue from Asia Pacific makes up almost 15% of Starbucks’ annual revenue, a 5.5% increase from five years ago.

It’s obvious to us that the holding power of China for Starbucks is going to be much more significant than the holding power of the US,” — Starbucks’ founder and Chairman Howard Schultz.

As the Chinese economy grows, Starbucks’ success does as well in a country where disposable incomes increase and the younger generation is attracted to quality-driven and unique brands that speak to who they are.

“For coffee, there’s a certain kind of ‘in-the-know’ from consumers who seek out these good boutique shops,” said Jack Chuang, partner at OC&C Strategy Consultants who studied the Chinese coffee market.

Although still predominantly a tea-drinking nation, China is rapidly developing a taste for coffee, an activity previously thought was for the affluent or Westerners.

Jack Ma’s New Retail Vision Reinforced Through Coffee

What does Alibaba get out of it?

It was as recent as Single’s Day when Jack Ma announced the ‘New Retail’ concept that aims to blur the line between conventional brick-and-mortar retail and ecommerce with the help of technology and data.

In the coming years, we anticipate the birth of a re-imagined retail industry driven by the integration of online, offline, logistics and data across a single value chain,” — Jack Ma.

Alibaba’s HEMA Supermarkets already blur the line where consumers can shop for groceries online via the HEMA app and receive them within half an hour, or scan barcodes at the store, pay via the app, and set up delivery.

A shopper can easily scan barcodes in the store and pay for the products through the HEMA app before having them shipped home. Source: Alizila

Partnering with a highly influential brand like Starbucks and providing them with the right technology is Ma’s push for even faster digital adoption..

A survey has shown that 40% of consumers are willing to pay more for a product if they could experience it through AR, and 71% claim that they would shop at a retailer more often if they offered AR.

Seems like Starbucks and Alibaba will be brewing some heavy money in China.

Outside of the world’s tech ecosystems, the digitization of retail hasn’t always been met with positive reviews. There is a fear of automation taking jobs away from humans, and that fear swells as brick and mortar stores go out of business. Are they warranted?

Research by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the US and reporting by The New York Times show that ecommerce actually has added more retail jobs than traditional models over the last 14 years.

The large change in percentage of ecommerce related jobs in the US over 14 years. Source: The New York Times

During his meeting with the President of the United States, Alibaba founder and Executive Chairman Jack Ma shared his goal to create jobs in the US over five years to focus trade between the US and Southeast Asia.

“Alibaba will create 1 million U.S. jobs by enabling 1 million American small businesses and farmers to sell American goods to China and Asian consumers on the Alibaba platform,” the company said in a statement.

Although ambitious, it’s also quite possible for a company that had more than 10 million active sellers in 2015, and estimates its China retail marketplaces “contributed to the creation of over 15 million job opportunities.”

“Machines should only do what humans cannot,” said Jack Ma. “Only in this way can we have the opportunities to keep machines as working partners with humans, rather than as replacements.”

Not only has there been an increase in ecommerce related jobs in the last ten years, these jobs on average also come with a better pay check – roughly 30% more than traditional retail jobs as averaged by one economist (all based on US figures).

Taking into account only Alibaba stock given to in-house employees, Fortune reports each person was paid roughly $11,134 in the latest quarter, a 6% bump in bonus pay per head compared to the previous year – more than double the average American’s raise last year.

Comparison of jobs created by traditional retail models and ecommerce. Source: The New York Times

While ecommerce is growing, its labor force still represents a relatively small chunk compared to traditional stores but given how interconnected multi-channel retail has become,

How do you categorize a sales clerk that assists a shopper ordering online through an iPad?

And so, where do we stand?

Unsurprisingly, all of these conclusions have been met with skeptics but recent news reporting Amazon’s aim to hire 50,000 workers in one day is a positive sign that ecommerce will always have room for a human workforce.

To put this figure in relative terms, the US Labour Department reported that 220,000 jobs were added to the US economy in June. Amazon will fulfil a quarter of this total in a single recruitment event.

This Quartz headline puts it best,


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2016 was a buzz year for drone crafts. The technology gained instant coverage across different industries and media sites as more companies created drones or were rumored to have one in the works.

Various logistics industry specialists also came out to assess the role of delivery drones in the landscape of logistics and last mile and predicted that drones have the potential to disrupt and reduce costs associated with traditional supply chain.

Logistics companies and retailers such as Amazon and Walmart have invested in pilot projects, but no drone has yet been commercialized. Logistics players such as DHL and Flirtey have successfully completed a few drone deliveries but are currently still in trial period.

With so much chatter in the drone conversation, which companies in our industry have actually shown progress in drone deliveries? We take a look:

1. DHL

Having operated a drone research project since 2013, DHL reportedly made a trip around a mountainous area in Bavaria, Germany area three times faster than cars with its “parcelcopter” in May 2016.

We have achieved a level of technical and procedural maturity to eventually allow for field trials in urban areas as well,” said DHL manager Jürgen Gerdes.

The delivery giant also reported to have built an automated system that can deliver packages such as medical supplies between two remote Bavarian villages. End-customers were able to visit a DHL “skyports” location where it stores the drones during the trial period in November 2016, insert their package into an allocated box and input a code that activates the drone.

DHL is also the first to apply to be a part of the mobile controlled UAV traffic research project, which will be effective this year.

 

2. Amazon

drone deliveries

Amazon already has a plane, a credit card, an employee-less grocery store so naturally the giant would have a drone delivery system they coin Prime Air. The company expects the drones to transport packages safely to customers within 30 minutes.

According to recent reports, Amazon has filmed for permission to run tests on experimental wireless communications technology – possibly to bolster Prime Air. Tests will take place at Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle before moving to its customer service facility in Kennewick, Washington.

If the requested tests are indeed related to Prime Air, it highlights how serious Amazon is about implementing drone delivery on a large scale. The senior manager of Amazon’s drone delivery service is Neil Woodward, a retired astronaut, and is listed as the primary contact on documents submitted by Amazon to the Federal Communications Commission regarding base stations for the wireless comms technology.

3. UPS

UPS made headlines in October 2016 when the package delivery giant sent a drone to deliver an asthma inhaler to a children’s summer camp on an island just off Massachusetts in the US.

According to UPS, the company is focusing on using drones to fly in remote locations to deliver emergency supplies. A more widespread delivery service is years away into the future.

 

 

4. Diamler

Diamler, the manufacturer of Mercedes Benz has been taking very active strides in drone innovation this past year. From its drone-equipped delivery van concept in September 2016 to its most recent $17 million investment in London based Startship technologies, a delivery drone startup.

Diamler’s drones aim to change last mile deliveries by integrating an advanced routing solution, which will provide information on where to place a package or whether a signature is required. It will still have to maneuver between the drone regulations set by the FAA in the US though.

 

5. Walmart

In collaboration with the Federal Aviation Administration and NASA, Walmart was developing internally autonomous drone technology that allows a quad-copter drone to take 30 images per second from a top-mounted camera, as well as deliver parcels. This was back in June 2016.

The Walmart drone is most likely still in the development phase, but the company plans to integrate the drones into all of its distribution centers in the future.

 

6. Alibaba

The buzz surrounding Alibaba’s Taobao drone started to circulate last February. Taobao ran a real world test that lets 450 people in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai order ginger tea and receive it within the hour. The test period only lasted for 2 days, but it was one of the first practical instances of drone delivery in urban areas.

Since then, the Taobao drone has been PR shy.

 

7. 7-Eleven/Flirtey

7-Eleven actually got a head start in the drone race, beating everyone by being the first to successfully complete a regular drone delivery to consumers in the US in December 2016. Approximately over 70 orders were placed in Reno, Nevada and received doorstep drone treatment.

According to Flirtey, the average delivery time was 10 minutes. Customers mainly ordered snacks and beverages, including over the counter medicine.

Slurpees and sandwiches could be widely delivered within the US via drones in the near future.

 

What’s next?

Which logistics company or retailer do you think should pilot drones next? Is Southeast Asia too far away from launching commercial drones or would the bustling streets of Bangkok and Jakarta be prime locations for drones in the future? Let us know in the comments.

Indonesia’s logistics costs are 24% of GDP, currently the highest in the region. The country’s logistics performance index (LPI) also lags behind its neighboring countries like Malaysia, Thailand, and even Vietnam, according to World Bank but Hong Kong-based digital logistics startup OpenPort is attempting to lower Indonesia’s logistics cost via technology.

The platform enables clients to track the entire distribution process – claiming to cut companies’ logistics costs by up to 30% by cutting out the middleman. Connecting shippers and carriers via OpenPort’s digital platform will also replace the inefficient paper-based process, decreasing the time it takes carriers to receive payment from three months to one month. Their cloud-based digital logistics platform will allow the supply chain to be managed entirely in house, solving headaches for many logistics companies in the archipelago.

“With more than 17,000 islands scattered across the country, Indonesia needs to make its logistics and supply chain management system more transparent and more efficient, and it is impossible to do so without deploying technology and systems that can seamlessly monitor processes and cut out inefficiency wherever possible.” said its chief executive officer, Max Ward.

The Indonesian Logistics and Forwarder Association (ILFA) has highlighted that the republic can unlock a potential US$250-billion worth of value in the logistics market if it could make the sector more transparent and cut out hidden costs.

The startup plans to expand its operations in Indonesia to Surabaya where the major Perak Port is located.

A version of this appeared in Digital News Asia on June 14. To read the full article, click here.

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