As China starts to recover from the Coronavirus epidemic, lessons are emerging about the role of technology in maintaining the flow of essential supplies to quarantined communities. The U.S. and Europe can learn from how Chinas digital savvy consumers have been working with the digitally enabled supply chains managed by Chinas big tech companies to guarantee essential supplies to people and communities in quarantine.
For the last month, Chinas cities, with their empty streets and deserted shopping malls, have looked like the set of a post-apocalypse TV series. It may be a glimpse of the future for Europe and North America, where lockdowns are quickly expanding.
Public discourse in Europe and the U.S. is predictably focused on how bad things will get and the practicalities of life under lockdown: How will people get food supplies? Can the medical services cope? Will people get paid?
But even at this stage in the lifecycle of the Covid-19 pandemic, some lessons are already emerging from China about how we can cope with the social and commercial disruption of this kind. A key driver, it turns out, is digital technology.
Lets start by looking at China, where the most recent signs suggest that the epidemic has now stabilized. In Wuhan a city of 11 million people the lockdown posed a serious problem. Because it was the first city affected, its citizens were unprepared for what they faced. Initially, the lockdown imposed by the Chinese authorities triggered panic buying of food and other essential items, emptying supermarket shelves.
Yet in a matter of days, supplies began to flow into Wuhan. Although fears and concerns about the disease ran high, residents fairly quickly came to terms with the lockdown and have leveraged digital technology to organize and collaborate with suppliers, thereby ensuring that supplies have reached the people who need them the most. Two factors have contributed to this remarkable show of resilience:
The combination of consumer digital maturity and digitally supported supply chains has enabled local residents to organize home delivery of essential supplies to people in self-quarantine. In the gated communities and neighborhoods that characterize Beijing, for example, residents have organized small groups of volunteers via group chat apps to receive supplies at the gate for the whole community, box them for each household, and deliver them to peoples doorsteps.
In the U.S. and Europe, however, the digital landscape seems rather less favorable for this kind of response than in China.
Although U.S. consumers are more than ready to shop on Amazon and other e-commerce platforms, only 16% of total sales in 2019 were on e-commerce platforms a number achieved in China four years earlier.
Moreover, groceries and ready-to-eat food remain challenging categories in the digital world, despite efforts to experiment with home delivery of foodstuffs on the part of Walmart.com and Amazon, which recently purchased Whole Foods. U.S. consumers have been much slower to shift to the digital marketplace in these categories than the Chinese, while last-mile logistics for the grocery category have yet to reach the standards seen in Chinas major cities. Even in the restaurant business, the likes of Uber Eats and others lag far behind Chinas MTDP, Ele.me, and many other similar services in China.
Europe, unfortunately, is even further behind. Although large retailers such as Ooshop.com of Carrefour and start-ups like Deliveroo are building last-mile logistical capacities, consumer demand and readiness are low, while old city infrastructures and labor regulations make the rapid construction of an efficient delivery system an extremely challenging proposition.
Just last fall, while Alibaba and Amazon celebrated their achievements during the Singles Dayand Thanksgiving sales respectively, large merchants in Europe ran into serious difficulties in handling their logistics for Black Friday sales. I personally received apologetic letters and cancelation messages from a major French electronic retailer, which admitted, We had unforeseeable difficulties in handling the large amount of transactions during the Black Friday period. That is forgivable if all that happened was that one failed to impress a friend with a new gadget. When feeding their children is the issue, consumers will be less indulgent.
Of course, the pandemic will subside and Americans and Europeans will find ways to cope with its effects; the Chinese do not have a monopoly on creativity and solidarity. But as the U.S. and Europe emerge from the coronavirus epidemic, their governments, cities, and businesses should look at how Chinas digital advantages have helped it respond to the logistic challenges presented by the crisis. Covid 19 is a wakeup call for European and the U.S., which both need to accelerate the digital transformation of their economies ahead of the next pandemic.
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