China leads the way when it comes to offering shoppers ‘scan and go’ supermarkets, but are consumers happy with what they’ve got elsewhere?

Making friends with your potential enemies is always a good strategy, and visiting China last week, it was hard to see why British retailers are so focused on Amazon and Seattle rather than giving at least as much attention to what’s happening in the world’s most populous nation.

Between them, Alibaba and JD.com already control much of what is happening in the megalopolises across China.

“At one fell swoop, China has bypassed the need for landlines, laptops and old-school logistics to become a mobile nation”

Whether it’s the way you pay – in Alibaba city (aka Hangzhou), ‘Alipay’, the wallet in a phone, is frequently the only way to make things happen – or cashierless shops (rapidly becoming the norm), in many ways China is a post-cash, digitally enabled society.

But is it also a vision of things to come? At one fell swoop, China has bypassed the need for landlines, laptops and old-school logistics to become a mobile nation where almost any need can be realised through a smartphone and the ready deployment of big data.

It is quite hard, however, to see it being implemented in a meaningful manner in the UK or anywhere else in the West.

East vs West

Amazon may have announced that it is expanding its Amazon Go format, but it looks as if it will remain a retail curiosity for some time to come, as the use of ‘deep learning algorithms’, for which probably read ‘a lot of cameras’, remains expensive.

And this highlights the contrast between what is being done in China and what is already in place in, for instance, this country.

“Globally, there are two speeds as far as in-supermarket payments are concerned, and the world beyond China is in the slow lane”

Western supermarkets continue to spend a lot of money on opening and refurbishing stores where the end point of the shopping journey is a trundle through the tills. Depending on the system that is in place, this may be relatively quick or extremely slow, being a matter of how many shoppers are in a particular queue at a particular time.

That said, while it would be nice to wander around zapping items with your phone and leave without the encumbrance of a checkout visit, the scale of investment that has been made by the big three or four (depending on your view of the current state of play in the UK supermarket arena) is such that any radical overhaul seems unlikely in the near future.

Globally, there are two speeds as far as in-supermarket payments are concerned, and the world beyond China is in the slow lane.

The real point, however, is that for the moment at least, all this may not matter than much. Shoppers are used to what shoppers are used to.