Ape’s new retail tickled by Ant

Sometimes the fun part in the business world is the last minute you thought a company might be moribund, then the next minute it suddenly resurrected into stardom. Okay, we are talking about a local startup Xingbianli, with the logo of an ape.

Our Ape is just a one-year-old baby, started out as a provider of self-service snack bar or unmanned shelf. In September last year, it received RMB100 million from well-known VC firm LightSpeed; in November prestigious names like Sequoia, China Renaissance also joined the A round of RMB380 million to feed the growth of this Ape.

The founder during an interview once described his company in such way:

“…an IT company satisfying consumers’ instant demands in China’s rising New Retail sector. We are not a company that seeks to ‘sell goods’, instead, we are a new retail model based on advanced technology and big data-driven innovations…”

However, for a long time, I really did not get his gist. Because the user experience was all about grabbing the snack from the shelf and scanning the QR code for purchase. There was no advanced tech gear behind the shelf and you even could steal the product If ever you were tempted to.

Soon the Ape came up with one more idea: rolled out 6 unmanned convenience stores in Shanghai.

The mechanism is the store offers free wifi for customers to download its app for QR code purchase and self-checkout (the app would generate a departure code on your phone after full payment, then you put it scanned by the Ape device for the exit, see image below), though again not much RFID, facial recognition, body movement tracking technology involved. But the store did add the zest of sharing economy service, such as borrowing books, umbrella, re-charing the battery.

Afterward, all we heard was the Ape had been on an expansionary path, even foraying into 3rd 4th tier cities. Then suddenly during the beginning of 2018, bad news surfaced, store closures, shrinkage of shelf deployment, severe capital crunch and very likely an early death.

But this week, Ant Financial, Alibaba’s financial affiliate, came to rescue by becoming a strategic investor for the Ape, which instantly revived the media confidence. The fact that the founder is the former high ranking executive from Alibaba might really help to seal the deal. Of course Ape is not the only startup in this arena upon which Alibaba threw money. Before the Ape, Alibaba already made several other dalliances. 

The new sentiment from the media is all the rumors we learned about the Ape were just mishaps and it had gone through soul-searching of strategic restructuring. This time it is about to launch a new generation of self-service snack bar, that is changing from shelf to a closed container, which can reduce food theft and damage…finally… a big leap! It is said the new container allows integrating its customer data with commodities data to enhance efficiency and customer experience, and Alibaba will offer the technical support as well. 

So we still should hold high hopes for the Ape. And when you can gather around powerful investors behind your back, an early death does sound like a remote past.

Author: Cecilia Wu