Over the past ten months most people in the rich world have participated in the biggest shopping revolution in the West since malls and supermarkets conquered suburbia 50 years ago. The pandemic has led to a surge in online spending, speeding up the shift from physical stores by half a decade or so. Forget the chimney; Christmas gifts in 2020 came flying through the letterbox or were dumped on the doorstep. Workers at a handful of firms, including Amazon and Walmart, have made superhuman efforts to fulfil online orders, and their investors have made supernormal profits as Wall Street has bid up their shares on euphoria that Western retailing is at the cutting edge.
Yet as we explain this week (see article) it is in China, not the West, where the future of e-commerce is being staked out. Its market is far bigger and more creative, with tech firms blending e-commerce, social media and razzmatazz to become online-shopping emporia for 850m digital consumers. And China is also at the frontier of regulation, with the news on December 24th that trustbusters were investigating Alibaba, co-founded by Jack Ma, China’s most celebrated tycoon, and until a few weeks ago its most valuable listed firm. For a century the world’s consumer businesses have looked to America to spot new trends, from scannable barcodes on Wrigley’s gum in the 1970s to keeping up with the Kardashians’ consumption habits in the 2010s. Now they should be looking to the East.
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