From Dynatown to A.I.

What makes you buy one thing and not another? How do stores know what to stock to make customers happy? Local businessman Henry Li has made it his quest to find out exactly what you want, so your shopping is easier.


No different than the major market shift from brick and mortar shops rapidly failing in favor of online shopping in the West, China is now quickly experiencing the same phenomenon. For the basic Chinese consumer, buying nearly everything over the Internet is a Godsend—more convenient and better information, faster, and of course, cheaper. For physical stores and malls across China, finding new ways to draw people in to shop is becoming more challenging with each passing day.

We met up with Henry Li, a major player in setting up and running Dynacity Mall until 2011, to discuss the past, present and future of capitalism in China.

“Roughly 20 years ago, most Chinese didn’t know about any famous brands outside of the country. Contrast this with today, where the same people line up in front of a Louis Vuitton shop in Paris and you realize how striking the growth here has been. Chinese became rich and they needed more and more high-quality products, so importers were waiting ready to fulfill their needs,” said Henry.

In just 10 years, for example, Chinese car ownership went from roughly 50 to 200 million active vehicles. People here now have money and it’s seriously burning a gigantic hole in their collective pockets. In the midst of this, many entrepreneurs like Henry were perfectly poised to take advantage of the economic boom that China has seen in the last 30 years or so. The obvious challenge now is to keep that sales growth going in the face of growing domestic competition.

“All of my work is largely related to commercial property. After Dynacity, I started my own businesses, including a hotel brand called James Joyce Coffetel. Today, we have more than 100 locations in China. In 2016, I created the retail shop We Buy, which had an initial focus of importing goods. Later, we added the restaurant Z Club within the store,” he explained.

If you’re reading in between the lines, you’ll understand that success doesn’t come from striking gold and spending the rest of a life enjoying it. No, it’s tireless, unending speculation. Looking at trends and identifying market shortcomings, all to give people something they’ve not yet tried before. For a seasoned businessman, this was all in a day’s work—that is, until the unhinged growth of the Internet marketplace sent shockwaves through conventional commerce.

Things seem to be going well, as he somehow—defying the limits of time and space—has the time to build yet another brand. This time, it’s a convenience store-type shop that utilizes a whole new technology—A.I.

“The Internet is drastically changing consumer behavior in China. Almost all retail business has been negatively affected, except the restaurant sector. So, my idea was to create a retail crossover to a restaurant. There, we can enjoy steady customer circulation throughout different times of the day and with varying buying purposes,” he told me.

From running the 150,000 sq m Dynacity to now overseeing much smaller retail spaces like We Buy, it might seem a downsize would make things easier. Ironically, this is not the case.

“Even though the shop is small, it’s more complicated than managing a shopping mall. When I was in charge of the mall, I didn’t need to directly face customers and had no worries about sales turnover. My only concern was receiving rent on time. A retail shop, on the other hand, has a lot of moving parts. I have to keep track of more than 1,000 SKUs (stock keeping units), monitoring which products are selling well and those that are not. The restaurant is even more complicated—there is location, purchasing, specialized staff, maintaining positive customer service and marketing. I’m trying my best to learn on the go, while fulfilling customers’ diverse demands,” he elaborated.

Things seem to be going well, as he somehow—defying the limits of time and space—has the will to build yet another brand. This time, it’s a convenience store-type shop that utilizes a whole new technology—A.I.

“In China, consumers change their purchasing behaviors all the time—first, shopping malls, then, Internet, and later, pure delivery. To get ahead of the curve, we decided to try something new: an A.I. self-service shop. Two shops are already under construction in Dongguan. Though they are now are only 15 sq m, I want to make them bigger. Later, I hope that my Z Spot A.I. stores will number more than 10,000 in China. This is my dream,” he declared.

After achieving so much, Henry seems satisfied, but still not ready to sit back and relax. Continuing to tirelessly work, always thinking about the future needs of Chinese customers seems to have become an eternal life goal. But make no mistake, life for Henry is just as pleasurable as it is for all of us.

“I truly enjoy the processes of my life. There are some happy times, some sad moments, but it’s all part of the experience, so I just enjoy being part of it all.”