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New shopping app shows China’s technological advance
By Doug Young

REPORTS about an innovative new app to assist shoppers in Xujiahui made me realize just how far China has come over the last 25 years in terms of providing convenience to average consumers. Of course it’s been more than a decade since I lived in the West, and systems similar to the one being rolled out now in the popular Xuhui District shopping area may also be available in the US.

Still, many of the electronic innovations coming out in China these days often seem even more advanced than those in the West, especially when it comes to shopping and socializing. That’s probably in large part because common Western technologies like fixed-line phones and even simple cash registers were quite uncommon in China just a quarter century ago.

That means China can often leapfrog past the West by introducing newer technologies and services like cell phones and e-commerce. By comparison, many Westerners have more difficulty breaking old habits like calling over landline phones and shopping at brick-and-mortar stores, and Western companies often must work much harder to integrate their older traditional businesses with newer technologies.

The program in Xujiahui looks quite innovative and is designed to attract shoppers back to the area as traditional shops face growing competition from e-commerce giants like www.jd.com and Alibaba’s Taobao. I find this showdown somewhat amusing, since most of the shops, malls and restaurants that have made Xujiahui one of Shanghai’s liveliest shopping areas didn’t even exist 20 years ago.

To tackle the e-commerce threat, Xuhui District officials have launched the mobile app that lets visitors do quite a few things to make trips to the area more convenient. For starters, they can use the app to reserve parking places, eliminating the anxiety of driving to the area and then endlessly searching for a place to park their cars.

The app also lets people plan their trips from start to finish. They can reserve theater tickets and restaurant tables, and check on activity schedules at various shopping malls. The app is also testing a scanning technology that would allow users to pay for their items using their mobile phones.

All this is quite mind-boggling for a country where shopkeepers used abacuses to calculate most purchases as late as the early 1990s, and where only the top-end restaurants accepted reservations.

One of my earliest memories of my first trip to Beijing was the extreme difficulty I had just phoning my friend after I arrived in the city one day in July 1987 after a 36-hour train ride from Guangzhou.

No one had a phone I could use at the station, and after a few inquiries I finally found a couple of flimsy-looking pay phones about a half kilometer away. Then there was the challenge of finding coins that would work in the phones, since nearly all money then was bills, and getting the phones to accept those coins.

When I first returned to China and moved to Shanghai in 2005, I was pleasantly surprised to find I could pay most of my regular monthly bills at convenience stores, replacing the old system that only allowed such payments after waiting in long lines at offices of the companies that issued the bills.

But even that improvement in payment technology seems like ancient history compared with my experience a couple of months ago while out dining with some former students.

Sharing the bill without cash

In that instance, we finished our meal and one of the students paid the bill using his credit card. He divided the total amount by the number of people present to figure out how much each person owed, and then I gave him some cash for my portion.

But when I looked around, no one else was taking out any money to pay him, instead they were busy tapping on their smartphones. When I inquired what was happening, one student told me that everyone was transferring the money to the student who paid using their online Alipay accounts, negating the need for physical exchange of cash and making change.

The situation is equally advanced at the university where I teach. There students use their online e-commerce accounts to purchase everything from big items like furniture to the most mundane everyday wares like soap and toothpaste. Since couriers aren’t typically allowed into the dormitories, there’s even a designated drop-off area where delivery men from different companies typically sit and wait, each surrounded by his dozens of packages waiting to be picked up.

It’s probably too early to say if this Xujiahui app will succeed in the face of the virtual shopping movement, and the app’s limitations to a single area could also make it less attractive to shoppers. But the idea certainly seems to symbolize the nonstop drive these days to make life more convenient for Shanghai consumers, which should help in the city’s drive to someday reclaim its position as one of Asia’s most cutting-edge shopping centers.

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