Last year Alibaba announced its "New Five" strategy, which comprises New Retail, New Finance, New Manufacturing, New Technology, and New Energy.
At the time, Alibaba founder Jack Ma told shareholders the Chinese Government's push for the One Belt One Road initiative presented Alibaba with a unique opportunity to grow its business globally:
"New Retail will bring about a restructuring of the global supply chain and change the complexion of globalisation from the domain of big companies to small businesses."
Alibaba's vision is to use its ecosystem — which now includes commerce, logistics, entertainment, cloud, and physical stores — to support its new strategy and provide a platform for individuals, SMEs and large corporates to do business globally.
This strategy has seen Alibaba experiment with new technologies over the past year, culminating in a showcase of technologies during last year's 11.11 shopping festival that demonstrated the increased blurring between online and offline shopping.
Customers can apply makeup using augmented reality "magic mirrors". This means they can apply as many different colours and styles as they like, and then — through the use of the mirror — immediately buy the makeup and have it home delivered.
Providing customers with the means to test different shades in a short amount of time adds an extra layer of confidence and assurance they are buying makeup that will suit them. In addition to being placed instore and in mall kiosks, the mirrors are also undergoing trials in public restrooms.
Clothing stores have begun introducing similar technology. Alibaba's virtual dressing rooms allow customers to quickly try on a wide variety of clothes — without removing any. A shopper can find a pair of jeans they like instore, try them on virtually, then receive suggestions using artificial intelligence and their previous shopping history on alternative styles and colours that might be of interest.
"In 2016 we had a small trial of augmented reality, and we are now starting to use it on a much larger scale — this is the future," says Maggie Zhou, Managing Director of Alibaba Group Australia & New Zealand.
Alibaba has also started rolling out its technology to transform traditional retailers throughout China, providing them with data-backed point-of-sale systems.
This will allow stores, even some in rural areas which may not have previously used any technology whatsoever, to obtain access to Alibaba's marketing, delivery, inventory management and payment capabilities.
One example is a point-of-sale kiosk that can use facial recognition cameras to track what shoppers do, identify who they are or estimate their age, and make insights into shopping preferences — effectively bringing what already happens online into physical stores.
Alibaba's chief marketing officer Chris Tung says the enormous pool of data and analytics expertise will help change the offline shopping experience and bring retailing back into the real world.
"We know a lot. We can model the lifestyle of 500 million people," he says. "Bricks and mortar retailers are suffering today, but there is a way to make them just as successful as online."
Zhou adds: "As we continue to adapt operations to better suit the digital world, traditional retailers must look at ways to restructure and enhance the customer experience and the physical retail space. New Retail is the way forward.
"By leveraging the Alibaba ecosystem and technology such as big data and smart logistics, merchants can offer consumers a more efficient and flexible shopping experience, while also improving their bottom line."
Zhou says the success of Alibaba has been possible thanks to the internet, and believes big data will become increasingly important to business in the future.
"The next 30 years will see the era of the internet flourish. We have the opportunity to change the world and to change people's lives," she says.
Will we see magic mirrors, virtual dressing rooms, and Alibaba's point-of-sale kiosks in New Zealand?
Ultimately, that is part of Alibaba's globalisation strategy. But for now, Zhou says China's scale makes it an ideal market to test new e-commerce innovation before taking it global.
"China is a very large market, with millions of digitally savvy consumers. This makes it a great environment to trial new technologies, fine tune them, and see what works."