Jan 18, 2019

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

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If you have tips or thoughts on what we can do better, just hit reply to this email or message me at steve@axios.com. Email my Future colleagues Kaveh Waddell at kaveh@axios.com and Erica Pandey at erica@axios.com.

Okay, let's start with ...

1 big thing: A lifeline for Main Street

London, 1966. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty

When we ask U.S. retailers why they haven't kept pace with Chinese rivals, they say the countries can't be compared. China is dominated by small specialty shops, not malls, they point out, and its people are accustomed to ubiquitous surveillance — which Americans reject as creepy.

  • But that defense may not be valid: Rod Sides, a retail expert at Deloitte, says he's advising his clients to follow China on digitalization, Axios' Erica Pandey reports.
  • "If you convince the users that it's about convenience for them," they'll get on board, he tells Axios. "There're a lot of things I can buy, but I can't buy more time."

Why it matters: The digital sluggishness of U.S. retail has victimized Main Street — the mom and pop shops that have been left behind in the Amazon revolution, one culprit in the blight of American downtowns.

Abroad, the trend is to save Main Street.

China's Alibaba and Israel's Trax are following the digitalization-in-a-box model: selling their tech know-how in the form of off-the-shelf software and equipment that make it easy to upgrade mom and pop stores in one fell swoop.

  • As of September, Alibaba had installed heat sensors, digital payment systems, and inventory tracking in some 1 million mom and pop stores across China.
  • In a dispatch last July from Shanghai, a convenience store owner told us that his profits jumped 30% after Alibaba installed its tech.
  • Trax's image recognition tech tracks what is and isn't flying off the shelves and feeds storekeepers data on how to most profitably restock aisles. The company said it has already modernized four supermarket chains in Israel, Singapore and the U.K., along with a number of mom and pops.
"A lot of the things we talk about here, like frictionless checkout, they've had in China for a few years already."
— Rod Sides, Deloitte

Now, there are the first inklings of the revolution reaching U.S. shores.

Last year, Kroger spun out Sunrise Technologies, its in-house innovation lab, which debuted wireless shelves and sensors at two Kroger stores this month. Now, Sunrise — partnering with Microsoft — has plans to sell its tech to other stores, including mom and pops.

  • Although it is the second-largest grocery chain in the country, Kroger is a tiny slice of retail and does not amount to a digital revolution in the U.S.
  • But Sunrise's tech can be installed in any store, regardless of size, and controlled by someone with zero tech chops, says product manager Kevin Fessenden, who was showing the designs at the National Retail Federation conference in New York this week. And the company has intentions of shaking up the industry.

The bottom line: Brick and mortar is not going anywhere — it still commands 90 cents of every dollar spent in retail. But stores are being turned into hybrids that include a heavy e-commerce element.

  • "It's about giving a brick and mortar store the kind of data that an e-commerce company might have," says Mark Cook, VP of product at Trax, an Israeli company that makes retail tech.
2. Crackdown, by the architect of China 2025

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

In a new episode of protectionism, Beijing looks likely to shut out foreign-made driverless cars.

Why it matters: The move — conceived by the architect of Beijing's controversial strategy for dominating the technologies of the future — is likely to increase U.S. tensions with China, where foreign carmakers are looking for the bulk of their sales growth.

What's happening: A commission headed by Miao Wei, minister of industry and information and chief architect of Made in China 2025, released the new policy on Dec. 27, writes Patrick Lozada, a China expert at Albright Stonebridge.

  • The move comes as both the U.S. and China, eager to hoard homegrown developments in critical technologies, are using export controls, tariffs and rules to elbow each other out.

Go deeper.

3. What you may have missed

The garden maze, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, the U.K., July 1940. Photo: Fox/Getty

Got a bit lost this week? No worries. Here are the top Future stories from this week:

  1. Wages unleashed: The Fed isn't slowing rising pay
  2. Off the sidelines: And earning $30 an hour
  3. The world buckles: Our geopolitical forecasts for 2019
  4. Supercharged cameras: AI surveillance goes to school
4. Worthy of your time
Expand chart
Adapted from Hannon et. al., 2019, "The road to seamless urban mobility"; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The stakes of the Bezos divorce (James Stewart — NYT)

The future of commuting (Ben Geman — Axios)

Big ships go green (Kyunghee Park, Jason Clenfield — Bloomberg)

Uncertain, but ethical, machines (Karen Hao — MIT Tech Review)

Australia vs. China in the Pacific (The Economist)

5. 1 fun thing: Big Mac trouble in Europe

What do we call this? Photo: Katherine Frey/WP/Getty

The European Union has canceled McDonald's trademark for the Big Mac in Europe, reports Slate's Charles Star.

Its infraction: The global fast-food chain could not prove that it sells Big Macs.

Yep, that's right. McDonald's could not convince the European Union Intellectual Property Office that it sells the food item for which it is most famous. (The Washington Examiner published an incredulous takedown of this absurdity — and then had to retract it.)

Axios' Kaveh Waddell writes: The American giant fell to Irish upstart Supermac's, which, after twice drawing the enormous chain's ire for its similar branding, hit back with a claim that McDonald's wasn't using its trademark for "Big Mac," Star reports.

  • McDonald's defended itself with Big Mac sales figures, images of menus, brochures, local websites, and food packaging.
  • The trademark office said the evidence held little weight coming from McDonald's itself, and yanked the trademark.

What's next: You better believe McDonald's will appeal.

Bryan Walsh