When my colleague wrote about Carrefour throwing in the towel in China, a French friend of mine asked “How are Chinese going to conveniently get their French cheese and wine?”

Well, the truth is, while you can get premium French agricultural and vinicultural products in many of the upscale supermarkets (e.g. CitySuper!) across first and second-tier cities in China, Carrefour is nothing French in China (aside from its name).

It is, in fact, no different from any of the major hypermarket chains in China – in terms of store layout, merchandising, and promotional mechanisms. I walked past one in Shanghai last week and decided to check out.

At the entrance, a few print pamphlets tell people what the discounts and promotions are. The only problem – nobody reads it anymore. People are busy with their phones, where they find deals.

I tried to get a shopping cart and realized that I need a CNY 1 Yuan coin to unlock it. Well, you probably know that residents in cities in China do not carry cash anymore.

“Where can I find a coin?” I asked the shop assistant.

“You can exchange your banknote with a coin at the counter?” The response went.

“But I did not carry bank notes either,” I added. I asked around, nobody had banknotes either.

“Then there is nothing I can do to help you,” the shop assistant said, plainly.

No wonder so many carts are stacked nicely together – nobody could use them.

Indeed, inside the mart, I did not see anyone pushing a cart. Well, in fact, I hardly saw any customer at all.

The seafood section, if you compare to Alibaba’s Hema, is rather dull:

It tries to advertise for free home delivery if you meet a certain spending threshold – alas, that is already a standard feature in the market, rather than a differentiating factor. Others allow you to scan and get delivery without having to do the physical check-out yourself.

Gome, an electronics retailer, just opened its store within this Carrefour. The irony is, the buyer of Carrefour China, Suning.com, used to be an electronics retailer smaller than Gome. Suning went into e-commerce in a much more aggressive way, early on.

Carrefour also cooperates with JD, ele.me and Meituan for online delivery – ‘within an hour in Shanghai’! Sounds one step too late:

The shop assistants were wearing “Let me help you” T-shirts. However, they were hardly helpful. I asked two or three, nobody knew the information I was looking for. And since there were so few customers, some of the assistants just came together to chit chat amongst themselves.

At the exit, a few channels allowed you to pay with Alipay through face scan. ‘Flash your face, and experience the future technology” – proclaimed this banner. However, the technology is owned, operated and data collected by Ant Financial, not Carrefour.

The hypermart concept was fresh when it was first introduced in China more than 20 years ago. Now visibly the leading players did not catch up with the shifts in the overall consumer market in China.

I did not buy anything during this visit.

Thanks for reading The Low Down (TLD), the blog by the team at Momentum Works. Got a different perspective or have a burning opinion to share? Let us know at [email protected].


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Jianggan Li is the Founder & CEO of Momentum Works. Prior to founding Momentum Works, he co-founded Easy Taxi in Asia, and served as Managing Director of Foodpanda. The two years running Rocket Internet companies has given him a lifetime experience on supersonic implementation, and good camaraderie with entrepreneurs across the developing world. He holds a MBA from INSEAD (GMAT 770) and a degree in Computer Engineering from Nanyang Technological University. Unfortunately he never wrote a single line of code professionally - but in his first job he was in media, travelling extensively across Asia & Europe, speaking with Ministers & (occasionally) Prime Ministers. Apart from English and his native Mandarin, he is also fluent in French and conversational in Cantonese & Spanish. He tried to learn Latin (for three years) and Sanskrit (for six months) as well. In his (scarce) free time, he reads, travels, hikes and dives. Pyongyang, Tehran & Chisinau are among the interesting cities he has been to.