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May 31, 2022

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Community living:Neighbors pitch in to spur bulk-buying trend

When the alarm goes off at 5:45am, you open all the grocery apps on your smartphone with sleepy eyes, fill your shopping cart, and stare at the phone screen with your index finger hovering over the check-out button, hitting on it like a madman.

And yet, you are usually not happy with what you buy.

When the lockdown was imposed in April, this was a common morning routine for many Shanghai residents. With logistics hit hard, it became nearly impossible to meet every individual’s needs. Yet people found a way out of the predicament.
Neighbors under lockdown swiftly formed a pattern of group-purchasing, in which they placed their orders collectively and took advantage of economies of scale.
In Chinese, those who are chosen to speak for and give orders are called tuanzhang, which literally means “regiment commander.”

A typical tuanzhang makes note of everyone’s needs, compares costs among suppliers, and, upon permission from the group, arranges for bulk deliveries of goods to the community.
The group leader is responsible for sorting and distributing the goods, as well as collecting payment.

Serving the elderly group

Frida stays in an old community in Changning District.

Her venture as a tuanzhang started when a thirst for fruit crept in five days after Shanghai’s COVID-19 lockdown started.

Her fridge was getting emptier by the day and the last two cans of milk were nearing their sell-by date, but the expected easing of the lockdown failed to materialize as initially planned.

At first she had to resort to bartering.

She traded half a bag of sugar for two mangoes and a bottle of chocolate milk with a neighbor.

There are only three low-rise buildings in her community, with most residents elderly people.

As a newcomer to the community, she summoned up courage to knock on every door, surprised to find that some elderly neighbors were desperate with food shortage. She quickly cobbled together a WeChat group of 256.
Because the large number of elderly were not tech-savvy, Frida at first had to write down their orders on a sheet of paper.

After the orders were collected, she had to go look for suppliers, compare the prices, and deal with all kinds of doubts.

“What is in the package? When will it be delivered? Are you a conman? These were the three most-asked questions,” Beijing News quoted Frida as saying. “I had to call the suppliers 20 times a day.”

The trouble only began to disperse when the first few group-purchase orders were a success.

“It was April 9, a happy day, when we received rice, vegetable and some fruits from the government, too, yet the fruits I ordered failed to be delivered,” she said.

Apart from group-buying, the WeChat group also helps when emergency rises. A neighbor texted late at night on April 9, saying a family member had a seizure but they could not reach an ambulance or the neighborhood committee. The group helped to rush the patient to a hospital.

“When all was settled it was already 3am. I sent a message to the group saying ‘kind-heartedness will be rewarded’ and fell asleep. When I woke up, I saw dozens of the same message posted in the group.”

Frida moved to Shanghai from Beijing in December 2021. As a newcomer, she said she has definitely gained some reward.

“Before the lockdown, I barely knew my neighbors. I saw elderly people sitting together in the old community but didn’t know how to communicate with them. Being a tuanzhang was the first time I really connected with the community.”

Spots of mildew

Li Junnan, a psychology consultant and mother of two, is another tuanzhang.

She initially declined to become a group-buying leader for her neighbors, but changed her mind after finding the last bread in the fridge turning moldy.

“I cut off the spots of mildew and made sandwiches for my kids with the last of my precious tomatoes,” Li recalled.

She started out with Kuaituantuan, a popular group-buying platform. She found a bread vendor and posted the product link on her building’s WeChat group.

The first venture was such a success that many of her neighbors joined the purchase group.

“To be honest, I did it for my children at the beginning,” she said, “but then I realized I could make a contribution to helping people during these hard times.”

Li took her responsibility very seriously. She organized the purchases of bread, fried chicken, pre-cooked dishes and even milk tea.

In addition to her digital software, she said her “fantastic four” hardware needs were a computer, a printer, a marking pen and a box cutter.

The only order that failed was one for roast fish. She spent days getting enough orders for a minimum buy, but when she sent the order to the restaurant, she was told there was no more fish left.

The best part of being a tuanzhang, she said, is the sense of compassion, mutual caring and tight social connections.

Her advice to other tuanzhang: “Be thick-skinned and stay calm because you never know what people you might have to work with.”

She cited the example of a girl who joined Li’s bread-buying group and placed an order for an old couple with hearing disabilities who lived nearby and didn’t know how to use a smartphone. She texted Li to ask if the deliveryman could take their bread to them.

Technically speaking, a deliveryman is responsible only for taking group-buying orders to the address on the delivery form. Li called the man and appealed to his better instincts.

“He had the right to refuse because it was against regulations,” she said, “but he said yes right away.”

She added, “We didn’t get to go out and enjoy the sunshine this spring, but I still felt warmth. The warmth of caring people. That might be the most beautiful silver lining to these cloudy times.”

Bread purchase

One such caring person is American David Fishman, 32, a new energy consultant. He first became involved in group buying when he couldn’t find bread for himself and discovered that many of his neighbors were in the same boat.

“I went on the social app WeChat to search for ‘Shanghai bread group purchases’ and found a vendor,” he said.

After his first bread purchase, which came to nearly US$600, was a success, and he tapped his skills as a project manager to extend bulk buying to a wide array of grocery items.

“It’s a task I can manage,” he said. “I collect the money, make a purchase and organize people to distribute it.”

Fishman is unusual since most tuan zhang are Chinese. But he speaks fluent Mandarin, so language is no issue. He used a survey app for sign-ups to learn what his neighbors wanted. Items with the most votes became shopping list priorities.

In a community with two tall residential buildings, each with about 300 people and less than 10 expats, he has stocked neighbors’ fridges with fresh vegetables, fruits, eggs and beef.

His WeChat group has 200 members.

Fishman said he has shared his experience in group buying on Twitter with other foreigners, dispensing practical advice on matters such as what to stock up on for potential multi-week lockdowns.

“It’s incredibly fascinating from the perspectives of supply chain, logistics and economics,” he said. “In a sense, we are in the process of reinventing the food distribution network in Shanghai.”


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