Strength in numbers: Neighbors step up to spearhead bulk buying
There's an old Chinese saying: A good neighbor is better than a brother far away.
In times of lockdown, the wisdom of the ancients has shown its eternal relevance.
Neighbors under stay-at-home orders have often banded together to create economies of scale by buying foodstuffs in bulk. For that, some leadership is needed, and those rising to the occasion are called tuan zhang, or "group-buying leaders."
One of them is David Fishman, 32, a new energy consultant from the US. He first became involved in group buying when he couldn't find bread for himself on available apps and discovered that many of his neighbors were in the same boat.
David Fishman, new energy consultant
"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 in his role. Most tuan zhang are Chinese. But he speaks fluent Mandarin, so language is no hurdle. He used a survey app for sign-ups to learn what his neighbors wanted to buy. Items with the most votes became shopping list priorities.
In a community of less than 10 expats, he has stocked neighbors' fridges with fresh vegetables, fruits, eggs and beef.
Fishman's group buy for beef
Though the concept of group buying is not new, its execution during lockdown isn't always easy.
To organize a group purchase, a tuan zhang must understand what neighbors want, must find reliable supply channels, must distribute product information, must set up a spreadsheet to collect purchasing information, and must impose closing times for orders.
At the very start, Fishman didn't know how to place orders on bulk-buying platforms like Kuaituantuan or Pinduoduo.
"We did it in a very manual style – pay the vendor; collect the money," he said.
His own wish list was for coffee, snacks and fizzy drinks, but the neighbors agreed from the start that frills like soda, cheese and crackers should not be considered until more basic needs were met.
"The building volunteers have been important because they're the ones who have to carry these purchases," Fishman said. "There are limited delivery logistics. So if somebody is delivering soda you ordered to your door, it means they are not delivering vegetables to someone else. We have to respect everyone else to make this system work."
His neighborhood comprises two tall residential buildings, each with about 300 people. Fishman organizes group buying for his building. About 200 people have now joined his WeChat group for bulk buying, which gives them the purchasing power to meet most minimum order requirements.
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."
Li Junnan shows two of her "fantastic four" hardware needs – a marking pen and a box cutter.
Li Junnan, a psychology consultant and mother of two, is another tuan zhang.
She initially declined to become a group-buying leader for her neighbors, but she changed her mind after she found the last bread in the fridge had turned moldy.
"I cut off the spots of mildew and made sandwiches for my kids with the last of my precious tomatoes," Li said.
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 this hard time."
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.
Li organized the group buys for fried chicken and pre-cooked dishes.
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 tuan zhang, she said, is the sense of compassion, mutual caring and tight social connections.
Her advice to other tuan zhang: "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 in a nearby neighborhood 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."