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Alibaba’s Latest Open Sesame: Live Crabs in Vending Machines

By Yang Ge
The Alibaba vending machine controls its internal temperature and humidity to mimic the crabs' natural environment.  Photo: Visual China
The Alibaba vending machine controls its internal temperature and humidity to mimic the crabs' natural environment. Photo: Visual China

Alibaba just can’t sate its appetite for automated retailing.

First the e-commerce giant wowed consumers with its high-concept unmanned convenience stores, and then it was automated gas stations. Now the company has mouths watering at an office building in Shanghai, where it has set up a vending machine dispensing live, freshwater hairy crabs — one of the city’s most famous delicacies.

Alibaba was set to roll out the machine around the just-ended Oct. 1 National Day holiday in partnership with Yiguo, one of its main partners in selling fresh produce, according to local media reports. Yiguo’s own website features a variety of fresh seafood, including oysters and other shellfish.

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The hairy crabs go for 15 yuan ($2.25) each in the machine, about half the price similar crabs are normally sold for in traditional markets. Photo: Visual China

But the new vending machines take the fresh concept to a new level, using technology to control internal temperature and humidity levels to parallel the crabs’ natural environment. As in the West, such crustaceans are nearly always kept alive until just before they’re cooked, often bound into tight, neat squares that are stacked up in markets and on restaurant shelves this time of year.

The cost is relatively modest 15 yuan ($2.25) for a crab weighing about a quarter of a pound, or an eighth of a kilogram, according to a report on TechWeb.com.cn. Similar crabs sold in traditional markets go for about twice that amount. Another report on the website online.sh.cn showed a machine with the Tmall logo filled with rows of the green crabs, each tucked neatly into a transparent plastic bubble.

Alibaba’s Tmall, one of its main online shopping platforms, previously experimented with another concept machine using hairy crabs as reward. That endeavor saw hairy crabs substituted for plush toys in a fresh-food version of the popular game where a player positions a claw-like device above a pile of prizes, which is then dropped onto the pile in an effort to grab one of those prizes.

Hairy crabs, known for the thick mat of hair on their foreclaws, are one of Shanghai’s best-known delicacies, and are farmed in bodies of fresh water throughout the Yangtze River Delta for consumption during the autumn months.

Alibaba has been aggressively pursuing similar automation concepts, as it attempts to create a blend of online and high-tech traditional retailing that it believes will be the wave of the future. Earlier this year it rolled out an unmanned convenience store concept filled with high-tech bells and whistles. More recently, media reported the company is also planning to roll out a completely unmanned gas station concept in its hometown of Hangzhou by the end of this month.

Contact reporter Yang Ge (geyang@caixin.com)

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