Retail, Startup News & Analysis

Alibaba’s future of retail involves QR codes, smart mirrors, and gamified discounts

Dominic Powell /

According to Chinese online retail giant Alibaba, the future of retail technology is rooted in object and facial recognition, QR codes, and gamifying shopper discounts.

These are the technologies the $32 billion retailer is pioneering back home in China, and is currently showcasing in pop-up shops around Australia, hoping to entice local merchants to implement the tech with their own e-commerce platforms to drive better omnichannel engagement from shoppers.

At a preview of the company’s ‘New Retail’ popup store in Melbourne this morning, SmartCompany was shown the technology in action, guided through a small replica apartment where each object was tagged with large black and white QR codes.

QR codes at the Alibaba pop-up store.

Straight off the bat, this poses an issue for the everyday Australian consumer. According to James Hudson, Alibaba’s director of corporate affairs and marketing in Australia, Chinese consumers scan “billions” of QR codes every day.

But in Australia, the weird square barcode is rarely seen, and a piece of research from 2012 revealed 62% of Australians didn’t know what they were.

“Merchants are our core focus here, and we’re about enabling other retailers. But having QR codes as a more mainstream technology in Australia would make a lot of things easier to integrate,” Hudson said during the preview.

“So we have to think about how retailers educate on QR codes or how existing tech like current barcodes could be used.”

QR code use aside, the first piece of tech showcased in the pop-up was the company’s ‘Magic Mirror’. Customers can take a photo of their face using a webcam above the screen, and apply a range of different makeup products to themselves using Snapchat-esque filters.

Me as a beautiful woman.

The products can then be added to a customer’s cart and purchased in store or online. Using this service I discovered I would not make a particularly good drag queen, but the system did recommend me an array of foundation and eyeshadow I could buy, or not buy, at my leisure.

Next up was the ‘Cloud Shelf’, a large interactive screen with integrated cameras and recognition technology that can tap into retailers’ e-commerce platforms and allow them to showcase products ‘in-store’ that otherwise would otherwise only be available online.

“Retailers would need to integrate this with their own e-commerce platform. [Alibaba’s] not focused on the consumer here in Australia, so it’d need to link up with their own e-commerce website,” Hudson says.

To help consumers know what they want, the Cloud Shelf also has a mood recognition system, scanning users’ faces and detecting their mood, and providing a selection of products to either complement or combat that mood.

The system can also recognise products placed in front of the cameras with surprising speed and accuracy, instantly recognising the brass kettle held in front of it and providing further details on the product and price, and giving users the option to add it to their online cart.

Alibaba’s James Hudson demonstrating the Cloud Shelf.

Alibaba’s final swing at the future of retail involves a large TV screen where users can use their phones to play a Pacman-style game to collect discounts and bonuses to use in-store.

Jaunty Chinese music played while we watched small plump birds roam around a virtual environment, collecting points. Hudson explained this was an engagement strategy for retailers, and the games could be specialised to a local audience.

Alibaba is currently only here to educate retailers about the future of retail technology, but Hudson says the retailer wants local merchants to view the Chinese company as a future partner. However, retailers keen to adopt the tech currently could do so, dependent on their current infrastructure and store layout, Hudson says.

“Currently a lot of the tech is in Chinese, but longer term we’re thinking about how to localise it to an Australian audience,” he says.

Alibaba has already licensed some of its tech to local online retailer The Iconic, with its app now featuring a camera-based clothing recognition service powered by Alibaba Cloud.

NOW READ: Alibaba launches Melbourne headquarters as Jack Ma announces $26 million scholarship program

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Dominic Powell

Dominic is the features and profiles editor at SmartCompany.

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