Alibaba’s $31B ‘Singles Day’: The technology that made it roar

Alibaba’s recent 11/11 day Singles Day sale was revolutionary for more reasons than one, apart from grossing more than $30.8 billion in sales, it relied almost entirely on Alibaba’s state-of-the-art technology to provide customers with an improved and almost “futuristic” shopping experience. Everyone who’s ever shopped in a supermarket knows fully well that choosing what to buy is just half the battle — the other half consists of navigating around other shoppers and waiting patiently in line while a cashier scans and bills items, one at a time. That’s probably why it isn’t surprising that in a country with the world’s largest population, a study says the majority of them would rather not have to deal with humans while they shop!

Now imagine you’re standing in a checkout line at a supermarket and the relief you’d feel if someone came up to you and said that you could just walk out the door and be billed automatically? Sounds like something from a sci-fi movie, but that’s exactly what Alibaba has planned for the future of shopping. As part of this major offensive to kick both their seller’s and customer’s shopping experience about 20 years into the future, Alibaba came up with the term “new retail” a year ago during its 11/11 “Singles Day” sale of 2017. This was in the form of about 60 brand new popup stores across 12 cities with new features and about 100,000 brick-and-mortar stores across 34 cities that they converted to “smart stores.”

New retail

How do you convert 100,000 mom-and-pop stores to “smart stores?” You incorporate a bunch of advanced technologies like cloud shelves, radio frequency identification, product vending machines that accept mobile payments, virtual reality, facial recognition, artificial intelligence, virtual fitting, and scan-and-deliver shopping. This year, they doubled the number of smart stores to 200,000 in addition to around 100 Hema supermarkets and 400 RT-Mart supermarkets that were turned into 11/11-themed stores. All this in addition to Tmall World, AliExpress, Lazada, and its sister platform Lazmall, tall of which were part of the 11/11 day sale.

The term “new retail” is used to describe an integration of the online and offline shopping experience with an emphasis on in-store technology and mobile payments, as well as cooperative ventures with independent retailers. At the heart of new retail, however, is data and ways it can be used to improve the shopping experience. To handle this data, Alibaba made available its “hyper-scale green datacenter” located in Zhangbei in northern China, which uses wind and liquid immersion cooling to reduce energy consumption by as much as 59 percent. Alibaba also used an intelligent operating platform, DC Brain, to optimize the performance of the 200-plus global internet datacenters (IDCs) hosting its online stores.

Special delivery

Cainiao Smart Logistics Network Ltd. is one of the largest unicorn companies in China, valued at 100 billion yuan. Alibaba heavily invested in Cainiao Smart Logistics to create a central platform to link together a network of logistics partners to handle the millions of packages it is expected to deliver on 11/11. This year the total number of 11/11 delivery orders processed reached a record-breaking 1.04 billion, exceeding 1 billion for the first time and ending well ahead of last year’s 812 million. The company also used newly developed IoT-enabled surveillance cameras that send real-time alerts, to closely monitor the thousands of logistics centers and facilities across the country on 11/11.

To accelerate the speed of parcel delivery across continents, AliExpress and Cainiao Network have collaborated to set up several additional overseas warehouses and operate several intercontinental flight routes dedicated to e-commerce deliveries. Cainiao also deployed a cloud-based video-monitoring system, Sky Eye Program, which uses cameras in logistics stations across the country to identify idle resources and abnormalities in the logistics process. It does this by using a combination of computer vision technology and Cainiao’s algorithm to send status updates to human operators in real-time.

Alibaba’s robot army

To cope with the enormous demand expected on the big day, Cainiao Network opened China’s largest robot warehouse in Wuxi city in eastern China. Alibaba claims the operating efficiency of Cainiao’s smart warehouse is 50 percent higher than traditional ones, probably due to the fact that it’s equipped with 700 robots or AGVs (automated guided vehicles). The AGVs are automatically directed over the IoT and work like giant roboshopping carts to drive, load, and unload and can fulfill and deliver orders to a fixed location in the warehouse. The order is then picked up by one of 15 major Chinese express-courier companies that Cainiao has partnered with to support this year’s 11/11 day sale.

One of the key technologies behind the success of the 11/11 day sale is without a doubt artificial intelligence. While AI robots assisted sellers with product assortment, recommendations, sales forecasting, pricing strategy, and more, AI was also used to efficiently predict future sales volume in the weeks leading up to the big day so stocks and inventories could be managed accordingly. The robots were also used to sort out products to sell according to certain categories and functions. Before the sale, Alibaba Wood, an AI video-editing tool, allowed some sellers to produce short videos on products listed. According to Alibaba, the editing tool can determine key content from text, images, and generate a promotional 20-second video in under a minute.

Damo Academy

Damo Academy is Alibaba’s $15 billion R&D initiative that over the past two years has been working to improve smartphone experience for the blind. In a joint effort with China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, it’s come up with a cheap silicone “smart sheet” that fits on top of smartphone screens. Though the technology is going to be officially released next year, it was made available during the 11/11 day sale. There are three mini-buttons on each side of the sheet that are sensory-enabled, which means pressing on them triggers certain commands, usually those that are frequently used like “go back” and “confirm.” Users say it’s much easier to shop with the sheet on, as having button shortcuts removes the risk of mis-clicking and the need for complex interactions with screens.

Damo Academy has also developed an AI translation tool in the form of an online chatbot that instantly translates from English to Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Chinese, Russian, Spanish, French, Arabic, Turkish, and vice-versa. The online chatbot was recently launched on Lazada and also provided support for AliExpress. The technology behind it is called neural machine translation (NMT) and is a network system used to train large-scale linguistic data. Officials at Alibaba stated this is the first time the technology was being used on such a scale. Additionally, another AI assistant called Alime Shop Assistant was made available to merchants on Tmall to assist them over the 24 hour period.

All in all, the Singles Day sale of 2018 was a huge and record-breaking success for Alibaba. Whether it’s a good idea to further minimize human interaction in a country already suffering from serious smartphone addiction, however, is questionable. The government already has a number of ad campaigns imploring people to look up from their phones for a change and not live in a virtual world and on the other hand, you have Alibaba’s Tmall Future Store featuring “unmanned retail 2.0.” If the future of shopping is indeed “unmanned,” they better find something else for the world’s largest population to do that doesn’t involve smartphones.

Featured image: Alibaba

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