Are “community shopping” apps killing community shopping?

China’s traditional wet market is facing grave threats than ever in the wake of a new stay-at-home lifestyle and the barbaric expansion of the shopping apps.

Photo by WU Rong

Photo by WU Rong

By WU Rong


This year has been hard on China’s wet markets as people become used to getting even their everyday essentials online.

There are currently more than 200 so-called “community” shopping apps in China, though a large number of them are managed by the least local operators imaginable: Alibaba, Meituan, and Pingduoduo. Since 2019, 26 financing events have brought almost 12 billion yuan (US$1.8 billion) to these apps, and like any other e-commerce business model, community buying apps started out by offering unsustainable cheap stuff to get users hooked. The community group shopping market is expected to hit 70 billion yuan (US$10 billion) this year and add another 50 percent in the next two years, but competition is not the wet markets’ only problem.

Addicted to online shopping, young office workers leave home early and return late. Wet markets in Beijing and other northern cities often close at 6pm or 7pm. But even at 10pm, delivery bikes still hurtle through the streets.

Community buying apps are merely the straw that broke the vendors’ back. While people have gorged themselves on discounts delivered to their doorstep, wet markets vendors are flirting with starvation. It is difficult to compete. Vendors are generally small traders unable to match the brutal pricing policies of Internet giants. Relentless urban management campaigns backed by chain supermarkets mean that old-school wet markets have long been relics of the past, even where they still struggle to survive.

The original competitor to the traditional wet market was the chain supermarket with supposedly more hygienic conditions and “higher-quality” vegetables and fresh meat, but supermarkets and wet markets have co-existed for years. As urban property prices rise, there is no longer room for wet markets. Planners simply perceive them as dirty and messy. And, for somewhat opaque reasons, COVID-19 put paid to the live poultry trade.

Shopping habits have changed, but the social function of wet markets has also changed. The market used to be a place that reflected local food culture, a place to meet neighbors and where buyers met sellers in a less structured way than in any store. All the customers and all the sellers used to be well known to one another. Walking around the wet market, chatting with neighbors and dealing with familiar vendors, perhaps over many generations, are some of the unique attributes of these markets that are soon to be lost

Although the development of cities inevitably leads to the disappearance of some economic forms, cities and societies should have the capacity to tolerate diverse lifestyles and multiple business models.

HU Gang, president of the South China Urban Research would have us believe that the trend in e-groceries is not an evil monster, but is perhaps something that urban planners do not know who to accommodate. Hu believes that it is necessary to limit the reach of Internet companies, but no one yet knows how to strike a balance between the shopkeeper and the delivery man.

If wet markets are to survive, some kind of transformation is obviously necessary, something Hu thinks should be a matter of government policy. Some cities, including Guangzhou and Shanghai, have subsidized the renovations of a select few wet markets.

"As important to protect people's livelihoods and lifestyles. Low-profit operations should be preserved as a matter of public welfare," Hu told Jiemian News. The job of a city manager, according to Hu, is to manage a city, not to simply react to the latest Internet trend.