Who knows. They might even be right.
We've picked five Chinese companies who are either in the tech industry or for whom technology plays a central role, consolidated the hype around them, and then wondered: what is like to actually be a customer shopping at one of these companies? They've spent buckets of money on building out their brand, but was there any left for the shopper?
Basically, we wanted to pit the tech hype against the retail experience and see what it might tell us.
Huawei is the clear frontrunner in the race to create 5G networks, and they’re now the second-leading smartphone producer on the planet, after Samsung and ahead of Apple. They’re looking at some turbulence in the next year as Huawei and Google part ways and their relationship with the U.S. government continues to be choppy. Within China, though, they’ve left the pack behind, and are frontrunners in both volume and style.
The cramped, Huawei “flagship” store, located on a touristy stretch of East Nanjing Lu, tells you everything you need to know about the company.
The first thing you see when you walk in is a glass case containing the Porsche Design Mate 20RS Huawei phone. A bargain at 12,999rmb, this phone is waterproof. It’s got not two, not three, but four cameras. A capacious 500 GBs. A lovely edge display reminiscent of an infinity pool overlooking the Mediterranean. Up-market logos.
After you tear your eyes away from its crass magnificence, though, the store is a tribute to “we don’t give a shit”-style marketing. Just a few phones, a couple of computers, a wall filled with crappy sound equipment and a staff that seems intermittently interested in engaging with the public.
And it all works because everyone who walks into that store knows that Huawei is the undisputed champion of the Chinese phone market. They’ve done what most people five years ago would have said was impossible: they’ve supplanted the various iterations of the iPhone as the It Phone in China.
What did it for Huawei is the P30, which will cost you between 5,488rmb and 6,788rmb. They’re slim, stylish, also with four cameras and edge display. The screen image is razor sharp, the battery lasts forever, it’s got fingerprint ID and the phone has earned a reputation for being glitch-free. Look around the next business meeting you’re at in China and you’re likely to see as many P30s as iPhones.
For slightly more careful budgeters, the Nova 4 is also a good-looking piece of equipment that will run you up to 2,699rmb.
Huawei has a few tablets and computers, blatant knock-offs of the Apple ouevre, but of course cheaper, and it’s hard to see how they sell any of them with their haphazard displays. They’re clearly living and dying with their phones.
For now, though, they make the best phones in China and they know you’ll come into their mediocre store and buy one. (To be fair, there are some nicer Huawei stores. around.)
Huawei Flagship Store, 505 Nanjing Dong Lu, near Fujian Zhong Lu
Remember when Japan produced all the confectionary, uber-cute electronics? No more. Mi has muscled it’s way into the “that’s precious!” market without neglecting it’s core business. Mi is the fourth largest smartphone maker in the world and is rapidly closing the gap on third-place Apple. Unusually in China, Mi has a well-developed retail sensibility that makes customers feel like the company is trying to serve them, rather than the other way around. And like Huawei, everything they make works.
These guys are number two and they’re trying a lot harder than Huawei.
Mi has taken a look at the all-conquering Huawei phones and decided that their market niche, for phones, anyway, is down the ladder a bit. The company specializes in serviceable phones between 1,000rmb and 2,000rmb. They work just fine, and they share a trait with Huawei that you’re going to love: if you drop the thing and break the screen, a replacement is quick, easy and cheap to obtain. (Get one from an authorized dealer, though, you cheapskate. The bootleg shops do questionable work.)
The star Mi phones are the Mi9 holographic phone (2,999rmb) and the Redmi K20 Pro, which starts at 2,499rmb and is an elegant device.
Like Huawei, Mi also sells computers and tablets that are thinly veiled Apple “tributes”. Their “Air” is 3,599rmb and needs to lose some weight. The Mi “Pro” starts at 5,599rmb and can run you up to 7,000rmb.
The really interesting thing about Mi is that the company has apparently decided, like Scientology and Kim Jong-Un, that they want to be in every part of your life. Their big store in Joy City is all about your home. Everything in it.
Whaddya want to network? Lights? Vacuums? Washing machines? Robots? Air purifiers? Hot plates? Water bottles? Clocks? Children’s toys? Mei guanxi. They’ve filled two floors of a pretty big store with this stuff.
You can even buy a ukulele — repurposed as a “populele” — that uses Guitar Hero-style buttons to play chords while you pick out a melody.
You can strum your Populele while you zoom down the street on your electronic, Ninebot kickscooter, Segway or go-kart. (Uh, there’s no way the go-kart is street-legal, right?)
In general, it’s just about impossible to get out of this store without buying something you’re going to tell your friends is “really cool.”
Mi also has some very good, living-room sized bluetooth speakers for sale — a rarity in China. Unfortunately, like Huawei, Apple, etc., they also have plenty of hip, stylish earbuds. Here’s a pro tip, kids: earbuds destroy your hearing. Stop using them. Forever. Buy headphones, buy speakers, even — heaven forfend — read a book.
Mi Flagship Store, 1/F, Joy City, 198 Xizang Bei Lu near Qufu Lu
China is now the biggest auto market in the world and it’s not close: the People’s Republic had about a third more new car sales last year than the world number two, the USA. Those sales are a big reason (1) you have an air pollution app on your phone and (2) the Chinese government wants to go in big on electric cars. Nio has been tapped by auto industry experts as the most likely to be the Chinese Tesla — or more. Like Tesla though, they’re in an existential race: as they go through sacks full of money, can they get to some semblance of profitability before the money runs out?
There’s minimalism, and then there’s this.
A guy wearing spiffy gloves opens a door to a room just off Shimen Lu. You step in. It’s quiet, the room is painted in neutral colors, and in the room, there are two brand new electric cars. Nothing else.
A man waits for you to approach one of the cars, and then, only then, does he approach you and ask if you have any questions. It’s about as un-car-dealership as you can get.
Nio thinks that they don’t need a hard sell when what they’re really marketing is hope. Hope that we can have a future that isn’t choked by automobile exhaust. Hope that the future will be filled with affordable electric cars. Hope that those cars will be made by Nio, not Tesla.
They’ve got the ES8 and the ES6. (Catchy!) They’re really the same, SUV-ish car. The E8, bigger, is 448,000rmb. The E6 is 350,000rmb. Nio says they can both go 500km in the city on a single charge. If you charge your car at home, it takes eight hours for a full charge. So: overnight. If you use one of their charging stations, it’s only an hour. (But there are only three stations to date: one at the dealership, one at the Shanghai Tower and one on Wuzhong Lu.)
These are nice cars; leather interior, good sound system, sun roof, lots of bells and whistles. They all come equipped with Nomi, a sultry digital assistant who can run just about every system in the car on voice command. (Alas, Nomi only speaks Chinese, but she did manage to dial up Bruno Mars on the sound system.)
There’s one catch. Maybe two. Two catches.
First, either because of production delays, or demand, or both, it takes three months to go from your order date to sniffing that new car smell for yourself.
Second, the cars, well, maybe they sometimes kinda sorta might burn up. Maybe! Bloomberg reports that a Nio in Shanghai and Teslas in Shanghai and Hong Kong spontaneously caught fire earlier this year and the Chinese government said last week that they want to know why. Lithium batteries are suspected. The government is demanding explanations from the two companies no later than October.
Nio House, 288 Shimen Yi Lu, near Weihai Lu
A coffee company that went from no stores to more than 2,300 stores in less than eighteen months. It’s a zero-to-sixty speed that’s impressive even by the standards of the China economy. The good news is that the company sold 125 million usd worth of coffee last year. The bad news is that they lost 243 million usd doing it. (Despite which the two people who basically own the whole thing are now worth somewhere in the neighborhood of 570 million usd.) luckin coffee was taking advantage of a classic market inefficiency: nobody was delivering steaming hot coffee right to your door. They got a big head start on the competition, but those days are coming to an end: Starbucks has partnered with Alibaba and McDonald’s is ramping up its delivery operation.
There are two ways to use luckin. The most common way, by far, is with your phone via the luckin app or their WeChat platform. They both offer the definitive luckin experience, which is to offer a dizzying array of ways to avoid paying full price. Loss leaders, low introductory offers, their ubiquitous two-for-one coupons, free shots, discount lattes, etc. It’d be a miracle if luckin ends up charging for even half the coffee they sell.
They’re also delivering food at prices that can be hard to believe, like a beef-and-mashed potato lunch for 25rmb, duck and chicken wraps for 9rmb each and cheesecake for 16rmb.
They give you a delivery window — say, 30 minutes — and they’re pretty reasonable about comping you if they don’t make it within that time.
Is this a successful long-term business model? In a word: no. But for now, you can’t beat the prices or the hangover-friendly convenience.
There are also luckin outlets that actually invite you in to sit down and have a cup of coffee. They’re like Starbucks or Zoo Coffee, but with a more modern feel. They aren’t groundbreaking, but they’re clean, well-lighted places, to coin a phrase.
For a few luckin coffee locations, click here.
DJI stands for Shenzhen-based Da Jiang Innovations (大疆创新), the largest drone company in the world. A success story in the consumer market and in the entertainment industry as a major supplier to film and television companies, DJI sells about 70% of the drones in the world, doing somewhere north of 3 billion usd in business last year. Not bad for a dorm room start-up. DJI is a high-end shopping experience, which means you can get your own HD flying machine and feel like part of the one percent while you’re doing it.
Shanghai is a city where sometimes you need to make your own fun. To do that, you need toys, something a bit beyond Fisher-Price.
The DJI store in Shanghai sees you coming from — ahem — a mile away.
When you walk into their showroom, the first thing you notice is all the pro equipment you can’t afford unless you’re shooting the new Liu Cixin movie, or maybe that Hasselblad collaboration (105,000rmb, lens included). But the sales people have likely sized you up and quickly direct you to the Cadillac of weekend-fun drones, the Mavic series.
People rave about these damned things, and you can see why when you handle them.
The Mavic 2 (7,888rmb) and the Mavic Air (4,999rmb) are gorgeous machines with a 4K camera, lots of pro-style features and a sleek profile in the air. (And you can plug them into your car for recharging on the go.)
DJI will also set you up with monitors for live feeds from your drone (the Crystal Sky monitor is 3,299rmb to 6,899rmb), and with a two-weekend tutorial on how to get the best use out of this stuff (2,800rmb).
There are — surprise! — some rules about using drones in China. A good explanation of them can be found here. Various sources suggest that your DJI drone may include software that shuts it down if it violates certain local rules.
DJI Flagship Store, 232 Madang Lu near Zizhong Lu