“Delivering Modernity,” by Jiayang Fan. The New Yorker, 7/23/2018.
This is still another example of an article I initially passed by, but later found informative. The article was illustrated by a full-page drawing of a drone, and I had already read enough about drones. But drones are only a small part of the article.
The article is about the Chinese company JD (“Jingdong” in Chinese), a new e-commerce company, similar to, but different from our Amazon. JD is the third largest tech company in the world, only behind Amazon and Alphabet (the parent company of Google). Like Amazon, they also provide the infrastructure for third party vendors.
They are expanding into rural China, and because of isolation and poor roads, are exploring the use of drones. In the trials, the drones do not deliver to individual homes, but the packages are combined and dropped at a central point by drone and are opened by a local JD employee familiar with the area who then delivers them in the usual manner. Chinese companies have traditionally competed on price by selling counterfeit goods and shoddy service. JD, in contrast, guarantees “no fakes” and backs up customer satisfaction. Increasingly, customers rely on the company’s reputation and are grateful for the expanded choice of goods.
An important factor is that the JD deliverymen are also locals, well-known and trusted by the interrelated, tightly-knit community.
The big shopping day in China is “Singles Day,” November 11. It sounds very much like our Christmas shopping season with discounts and special sales (and crowds).
The author describes how stores were run in Chongqing (Chunking) where she grew up in the 1980s. There was only one state-owned brick-and-mortar convenience store for 20,000 people in the army compound where she lived. It was called a service agency, and everything was in glass counters or on shelves inaccessible to customers. If you wanted something, ask and a clerk would get it for you (and watched as you examined it). Customers were not allowed to touch anything, even a stick of gum. If you wanted a soft drink, you had to drink it in the store and return the bottle to the case. To order special items, you had to be in the good graces of the manager.
When she and her family moved to the US in 1992, she was amazed by our supermarkets where the customers were free to pick and examine their purchases. Until checkout, it seemed like theft. Why were the supermarkets not bankrupted by shoplifting? (I have wondered that, too.)
Before leaving China, she was sent to live for 3 months at her father’s birthplace, a remote village where there was no convenience store at all. The only place to buy anything was at a weekly bazaar in another village some distance away. At her village, everyone was said to be related in some way, and this interrelationship was the primary social and business structure. Much individual business was done by barter and favors. (I found the same underlying relationships in my Japanese-American wife’s hometown of Seabrook, NJ, that she understood, but I did not.)
In comparison, drones and e-commerce seem simple.