Tech

Shanghai quarantine tests Chinese online grocery store apps

But last year things went downhill. Despite the hype and the money, these companies have struggled to turn a profit as the lockdowns eased and people just went back to shopping in person. To make matters worse, they have been caught up in China’s new fight with antitrust behavior. The Chinese government hastened impose fines and editorials questioning the value of the industry.

As a result, once-promising start-ups and big tech companies have decided to scale back their expansion plans, carry out massive layoffs, or file for bankruptcy. DiDi and Ele.me, two successful technology companies that have bet on online products as a new driver of growth, have decided to close these services. At least two more online product startups closed their businesses last year.

The latest restrictions are giving the industry a second chance. As other Chinese cities like Beijing and Hangzhou also face imminent lockdown, millions of people are downloading these apps again and relying on them daily. In fact, at the beginning of April, the Dingdong app climbed to the third place in the App Store Free App Rankings in China.

daily battle

While more fortunate residents of Shanghai may receive one-off free food parcels from their employers or local governments, most people, like Song, have had to find a way to shop for groceries on their own. Some residents formed neighborhood groups through messaging appscollection of all orders and bulk purchases directly from nearby farms or food factories.

But Sun soon realized that grocery shopping with all the neighbors meant she couldn’t make her own choices. She lives in an old residential area where more than three-quarters of the population is elderly or families with children. While her neighbors place family orders for things like five pounds of pork, these purchases will take her forever.

So the only other option for her is grocery apps. She frantically upgrades Dingdong, Hema, and Meituan Maicai every day to get a slot.

But because the lockdown disrupts the supply chain for many products, including groceries, even placing an order on these apps requires luck and dedication. Like Black Friday shoppers waiting to open store doors, Shanghai residents swarm apps at scheduled times to try and buy as many as they can before stock runs out in seconds. This can be stressful and frustrating.

Li, a Shanghai-based consultant who only uses her last name because she wants to remain anonymous, also got up early in the morning during the week to try her luck with half a dozen different apps. But during self-isolation, she did not receive a single successful order, and her mother, who lives under the same roof, managed to get three. One day, Li put hundreds of yuan worth of groceries in her shopping cart, but when she got to the checkout stage, only a bag of candy was left.


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