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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As I learned in China last week, U.S. and European companies are being seriously out-smarted while China's Big Tech rivals compete to pull traditional retail businesses into their exclusive, online corporate universes.

Why it matters: Retail is the largest single source of American jobs — and, in the U.S. and most other countries, one of the biggest parts of the overall economy. That Chinese companies are aggressively exploring how to save Main Street and middle-class jobs is terrific; that the U.S. and Europe seem all but flat-footed is not.

As I wrote, their battlefield is digitalization-in-a-box — off-the-shelf systems that allow virtually any business, from a mom-and-pop shop to a Walmart, to zoom directly into the exosphere of e-commerce.

  • The data underlying this merger of e-commerce and plain-old commerce are that brick-and-mortar remains by far the largest chunk of retail, and thus if e-commerce wants to continue growing, it must marry itself to physical stores.
  • The West does not necessarily want this, but in China doing it well is a state affair: President Xi wants Big Tech to help enact his economic policies — like expanding the middle class — so they do, because they want to survive.
  • Hence the war is, while transcending e-commerce, to own everything the merchant and customer do, from purchase, to payment, to shipment.

The companies doing this are Alibaba, Tencent and JD.com, China's e-commerce, gaming, messaging and fintech giants.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere, retailers have been filing bankruptcy in increasing numbers. More and more analysts are advising calm — that the trend is ultimately less crucial than one might think because Amazon and other warehouses are snapping up workers in larger numbers than retail workers are losing jobs.

Be smart: Here is where Americans and Europeans may be getting the wrong picture.

  • The worker-less future: Among the places I visited was JD. Along with other reporters, I stood near its latest e-commerce fulfillment center, a warehouse that can ship 200,000 packages a day with just four human workers, all of them robot mechanics.
  • JD will decide over the coming months whether its investment building this futuristic warehouse justifies the savings in labor costs, and thus whether it should build more of them. Meanwhile, it is installing as much automation as it can in its other hundreds of warehouses in order to reduce its work force.
  • At the same time, Amazon and other e-commerce firms are hiring workers in droves — now. But when they approach full-automation, those workers are likely to vanish.

As an example of the e-commerce approach to a traditional store, consider Hema (pronounced HUM'-uh), the Alibaba supermarket that sometimes out-qualities Whole Foods.

  • The store I visited had super-fresh produce. But the bigger thing was the seafood department, filled with pristine tanks of live, swimming fish of various types, plus crustaceans from around the world.
  • Every type of seafood we bought included a barcode from which we could track its origin and how it reached the store — mussels (New Zealand), lobster (Canada), scallops (China's Zhejiang province), and so on. This is an increasingly common feature on China's supermarket merchandise — a barcode that reveals the entire chain of a product's journey to the shelf.
  • You can then take the seafood to a separate kitchen department, which prepares it as you like while you shop. They text when it's done. It was pretty scrumptious at $20 a person.
  • As for your shopping, you can choose to have your stuff delivered to your home within 30 minutes, as long as you live within a two-mile radius of the store. JD offers the same service with its 7-Fresh stores.

More on the ground details from China:

  • Almost no Chinese use cash or credit cards. Instead, every transaction — from a fruit-vendor on the street, to the super-market, to movie tickets, to paying your baby-sitter — is done from your smart phone. This is convenient and, while you can't pile up credit card debt using this feature, possibly you shouldn't anyway.
  • One of the most important new tech waves is the home speaker. It may become almost as big as the smart phone — and the Chinese are treating it that way. In Hangzhou, I visited a Tmall Genie store, a cool shop that, in tone and decor, very much resembles an Apple or Tesla outlet, devoted entirely to selling various models of Alibaba's home speaker.
  • Amazon is impressed with its two-day and sometimes two-hour delivery. But JD delivers almost all of its packages the same day, and more than half within 12 hours. You can also order something delivered in 30 minutes.

Go deeper: At Fortune, Adam Lashinsky has a new takeout on the war between titans Alibaba and Tencent.

Go deeper

The hard math behind America's labor shortage

Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Congressional Budget Office; Chart: Axios Visuals

Yes, the pandemic has created unusual temporary labor market dynamics. But in the bigger picture, the 2010s were a golden age for companies seeking cheap labor. The 2020s are not.

The big picture: In the 2010s, the massive millennial generation was entering the workforce, the massive baby bo0m generation was still hard at work, and there was a multi-year hangover from the deep recession caused by the global financial crisis.

Advocates fret Roe v. Wade's 49th anniversary could be its last

Photo: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Women's March Inc

As Saturday marks the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court's landmark decision that legalized abortion access in the U.S., advocates warn the ruling is "more at risk now than ever."

The big picture: The Supreme Court in December heard a challenge to a Mississippi 15-week abortion ban that could throw Roe's survival into question, or at least narrow its scope.

Updated 14 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker