Stories by Erica Pandey

Up for grabs: Alibaba's secret sauce for winning Chinese retail

A line of shoppers reach for desserts
A supermarket in Alibaba's hometown of Hangzhou. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

As the debate over whether Amazon is monopolizing retail presses on, we pointed to a lurking data question for the e-commerce behemoth: Will regulators question the mountain of behavioral data Amazon has about its hundreds of millions of customers' shopping habits?

But on the other side of the world, China's homegrown e-commerce king is getting ahead of that question. Alibaba actually offers its data to the companies that sell on its platform, so they can tweak their products to better entice Chinese shoppers.

How Sears undercut racism in retail, 100 years ago

The cover of the Sears catalogue, 1900. Photo: Getty

As Sears filed for bankruptcy yesterday, we chronicled how the once-iconic department store has been misunderstanding its shoppers for decades. But early in Sears' long reign, it was a revolutionary force in the U.S., among other things subverting Jim Crow-era practices that blocked black Americans from shopping freely, and charged them usurious prices.

Sears' last chapter: More panic over e-commerce

Black and white photo of Sears storefront in 1943
Sears in 1943, the good old days. Photo: Gordon Coster/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Like the rest of Big Retail, Sears thrived for a century and a half on a low-wage, low-productivity strategy, hiring thousands of workers to wade through mountains of inventory and stock shelves. But its practice of sluggishness finally caught up it, as the company today filed for bankruptcy with plans to close another 142 stores.

Why it matters: Brick-and-mortar retail still rakes in a whopping majority — 91% — of shopping dollars. But Sears' fate is the latest and perhaps most dramatic example of how, since 1990, the productivity of department stores has stayed remarkably flat, while online shopping has surged.