Chinese retail giant Suning, as well as others like Alibaba, have invested in a series c funding round for artificial intelligence company SenseTime, bringing that startup's latest funding up to $600 million. That makes it the most valuable AI startup in the world, according to analyst firm CB Insights. The startup, which has a valuation of $4.5 billion, specializes in real-time surveillance and facial recognition.
Suning also announced a new report this week that analyzes how major players in China, including Alibaba, JD.com and Suning, are embracing tech-driven transformations to deliver on new smart retail strategies aimed at improving the customer experience, according to a Suning press release.
In support of its own smart retail strategy, Suning plans to open about 15,000 "internet-connected" stores over the next three years, as it aims to have about 20,000 such stores in operation by 2020.
The whitepaper, "2018 Better Life — Smart Retail," was unveiled at the 2018 Boao Forum for Asia and discussed at a panel session, during which Sun Weimin, vice president of Suning.com, stated, "The advent of smart retail is about the datamation of all the retail factors including products, logistics, check-out process, and achieving more intelligent sourcing, selling and services, seeing applied technology innovations including omnichannels, Internet-of-things, big data analysis, artificial intelligence, augmented reality and virtual reality becoming ubiquitous.”
He went on to say that the traditional model of make-sell-consumer will soon be upended by a new one: experience-buy-make.
While Suning at one time might have been described simply as a brick-and-mortar electronics retailer, it has pursued many endeavors in the physical and digital world in recent years that reflect a grander vision. Operations now include the Suning.com for direct online sales, the Suning Cloud Store, its new unmanned Biu store, remodeled offline retail experience Suning Ji Wu and SuFresh. Suning is also pursuing the use of 3D-printing for greater efficiency in getting merchandise produced and ready for sale.
The company isn’t pursuing this vision on its own. Back in 2015, Chinese e-commerce market leader Alibaba invested $4.6 billion in Suning, one of the first moves in what has since become a massive multi-deal effort by Alibaba to become more than just a pure-play e-commerce company. As a result of that deal, Alibaba and Suning have partnered closely, with Suning investing much of its own money in an e-commerce joint venture.
Suning’s partnership with Alibaba and its overall position in the market give it a solid perspective from which it can analyze what the major players are doing in the Chinese market — not only Alibaba and Suning, but also Alibaba’s chief rival JD.com. All of these companies are looking not just to diversify their holdings between the physical and digital retail worlds, but actually establish hybrid operations by leveraging technology, automation and the application of customer data to drive sales and improve the shopping experience.
There are many differences between China’s market and others, but these efforts provide lessons worth learning for just about any retailer anywhere. Smart retail may be about automating through data, but what's really smart is keeping one foot planted firmly in the physical retail world, and the other in the digital retail world, and working on how each can feed the other.