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Travelling to Beijing and the southern Chinese city of Hangzhou this week presented the opportunity to get a glimpse of how things may be in the future. Sitting waiting to board at Gate 45 in Beijing’s Terminal 2, nobody looked at anybody else. All were too busy looking at their phones, or waiting in line to reach the bank of charging points in order to, perish the thought, keep from being disconnected from the web. No books were being read. Indeed, there wasn’t even a store where you could buy the same, although digital accessories were on sale everywhere.

Then in greater Beijing there was 7Fresh, a fantastic supermarket that, as the name might imply, has an emphasis on fresh produce, and it is as much about in-store dining as it is about grocery shopping.

It is worth noting at this point that 7Fresh is owned and operated by JD.com, China’s largest online retailer. Having made the leap into food retailing, as you’d expect, JD.com is a store where the app is king. Download the JD app and you can shop online (delivery to your home within 30 minutes within a three km radius of the store), pay in-store using facial recognition and get information about what you’re buying as you wander around the aisles.

And to get the app all you’ve got to do is scan a QR code, which is seemingly everywhere in this medium-sized supermarket-cum-grocery store. The diners, most of whom were eating burgers or seafood that had been chosen and then cooked in situ, looked a happy lot. This was one of the rare occasions when the phones were put down and people were talking to each other.

It’s hard not be ambivalent about all of this. The 7Fresh app does make things easier and knowing more about your food must be a good thing. But is there ever a moment when the digital clock stops and you take a look at the non-virtual world?   

John Ryan is a journalist covering the retail sector, a role he has fulfilled for more than a decade. As well as being the European Editor of VMSD magazine, he writes for a broad range of publications in the U.K., the U.S. and Germany with a focus on in-store marketing, display and layout, as well as the business of store architecture and design. In a previous life, he was a buyer for C&A, based in London and then Düsseldorf, Germany. He lives and works in London.

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