Alibaba’s latest addition to its retail chain might be changing the grocery retail game in China. The group last month unveiled three new Hema supermarkets in Beijing and Shanghai, hoping to provide a seamless blend of online and offline shopping experience as part of their “new retail” strategy.

TechNode visited the Hema store in Beijing, and this is what we found.

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The highly mobile-powered supermarket requires shoppers to download their “Hema” app and link it to their Taobao or Alipay accounts. The store provides free WiFi, so the customers don’t need to worry about bad internet connection when they scan a bar code with the app. Doing so provides more information—or perhaps the backstory—of an item or facilitates the checkout process as all payments are processed through the phone.

One of the highlights of the Hema supermarkets is the variety of live seafood available. Aside from regular fresh produce, shoppers can hand-pick their own crabs, shellfish, lobsters, or clams, and have them cooked right away for take-out, delivered to their home, or eat in at the store’s dining area.

The fresh seafood section is definitely a game-changer. It’s like moving a traditional seafood market into a grocery store, just without the fishy smell.

Shoppers can hand-pick seafood and have it cooked on the spot at Beijing's Hema market, pictured here in 2017. (Image credit: TechNode)
No fishy smell as shoppers hand-pick their own seafood (Image credit: TechNode)

The store also serves as a warehouse. For those who fancy shopping from the comfort of their home, they can simply order goods on the mobile app and get them delivered. However, each store only serves a customer base within a three-kilometer radius—a hyperlocal business.

When an order is made, staff prepare the items with bags that each comes with a special bar code. They collect the goods with the bags and put them on a conveyor belt which carries orders to the delivery center next to the store.

“We believe the future of new retail will be a harmonious integration of online and offline, and Hema is a prime example of this evolution that’s taking place,” said Daniel Zhang, CEO of Alibaba Group, in a company press release. “Hema is a showcase of the new business opportunities that emerge from online-offline integration.”

The online and offline blend also ensures an enhanced shopping experience. With every purchase logged and preferences saved, the company is able to track the user behaviors and offer up a more customized shopping experience.

“I did find the shopping experience fun,” said Gong Rong, a customer who visited the supermarket with her college-age son after hearing about it from her neighbors. “However, I don’t really like the way they cook the seafood. It doesn’t have enough flavor,” said Gong.

“It’s convenient to shop with the app, and the food is delicious,” said Liu Dan, another customer who came to the store with her husband and toddler. They had crabs and lobsters. “We waited for about an hour for our food to come, though,” said Liu.

Even though it seems that Alibaba is ambitious about the grocery business, the e-commerce giant doesn’t intend to operate a large grocery chain, according to Alizila, Alibaba’s corporate news site. However, since 2015, Alibaba has opened 13 Hema stores in China — 10 in Shanghai, two in Beijing and one in Ningbo.

It is smart for Alibaba to merge everything with Alipay, making the major player in mobile payment sector more of a necessity. However, at the end of the day, that fresh seafood section may be the ultimate game-changer. That’s what local Chinese really care about, after all.

Timmy Shen is a technology reporter based in Beijing. He's passionate about photography, education, food and all things tech. Send tips and feedback to or follow him on twitter at...

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