Shanghai jumps into group buying to stay fed during COVID lockdown

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – When Shanghai first went into full COVID-19 lockdown last week, Ping Mai wasn’t expecting she’d become her housing compound’s unofficial broker for its meat supply.

FILE PHOTO: An Ele.me delivery worker hands a bag to a resident behind barriers sealing off an area, before the second stage of a two-stage lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Shanghai, China, March 31, 2022. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo

With her and her neighbours stuck at home and struggling to buy food amid lockdown curbs that have shuttered stores and dramatically reduced the number of couriers, she is among millions that are trying to figure out how to buy fresh supplies on a daily basis.

One popular solution has been community group-buying, which sees residents at the same address band together to bulk buy groceries or meals from suppliers or restaurants, placing single orders that could add up to thousands of dollars.

Restaurants such Yum China’s Pizza Hut and hot pot chain Haidilao , which have had to shut their dine-in outlets, have jumped on the bandwagon. The former at one point had offered groups of 10 buyers 120 steaks for 2,900 yuan ($456). The latter has sold packages of eggs, mushrooms and root vegetables priced at 58 yuan with a minimum order of 30 sets.

Offers spread quickly through social media, and once enough buyers sign up and make a payment, vendors will dispatch the order to the complex usually days later, and building security or volunters will then drop off each order door-to-door. Sometimes, residents organise couriers themselves.

Mai recounted to Reuters how she took it upon herself to source meat, and rang several suppliers only to learn they had stopped taking orders.

When one finally said it had stock but had a minimum order of 30 sets priced at 200 yuan each, it sent her into a scramble into chat groups to find 29 other interested parties.

She continues to be on the hunt for more offers for her neighbours, even as she juggles it with her day job.

“Lots of people are busy with work, and lots of people in the building are old. I’ve got time, so I can help,” she said.

However, many residents are concerned that the government could shut the practice down, especially as it tries to stamp out virus transmission.

Shanghai on Friday announced a record 21,000 new cases and a third consecutive day of COVID testing as a lockdown of its 26 million people showed no sign of easing, while other Chinese cities tightened curbs – even in places with no recent infections.

Some Shangahi residents said their neighbourhood committees had sent out messages this week saying they were no longer allowed to do group buying, citing contagion risks and manpower issues. At one housing compound, some residents turned away a truck full of orders made by their neighbours, citing virus risk.

On Friday, an official rumour buster WeChat account, which is backed by China’s internet watchdog, denied that the city government planned to ban group-buying.

Still, Loly Chen, a 26-year-old designer, said such rumours were stoking anxiety for people such as her, due to the uncertainty over how long Shanghai’s lockdown will last, though she is content to live on instant noodles for now.

“Even though I still have enough food for now, I’m always worrying about running out.”

($1 = 6.3625 Chinese yuan renminbi)

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