China
Express couriers meet China's ever-evolving need for delivery speed
By Elsbeth van Paridon  ·  2024-01-29  ·   Source: NO.5 FEBRUARY 1, 2024
He Fang, a full-time courier at JDL, the logistics arm of Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com, at work in Beijing on January 17 (ZHANG WEI)

Jingdong ayi lai la! Or "The Jing Dong auntie is here!" in plain English.

With rosy cheeks, unmistakably the result of spending a lot of time outdoors in the ice box that is Beijing winter, He Fang emerges from behind a long line of delivery karts, wrapped in several layers. Her outer layer is a perfect match for the tiny three-wheeled vehicles: red and emblazoned with "JDL." The three letters stand for JD Logistics, the shipping and delivery arm of JD.com, launched in 2004 and now one of China's three key e-commerce players, together with Alibaba and PDD.

On this January day, this writer finds herself at a JD delivery center in east Beijing, ready for a Q&A with He, right before her third and final delivery round of the day late in the afternoon.

A mother of two teenagers, He is one of a growing number of women entering China's delivery industry, until now a male-dominated sector, as food delivery drivers and couriers.

"This job provides a stable income, which is first of all more than I can make in Baoding (her hometown, a two-hour drive from Beijing in northern Hebei Province), and secondly allows me to support my family. The financial stability it provides secures my children's future. It ensures that they can pursue higher education, something I never had access to," she told Beijing Review.

He's persistence and hard work have earned her the respect of colleagues and customers alike.

Undaunted by the physically demanding nature of the work, she added, "The first month I started working, I was exhausted by the end of each day. But then I just got used to it. At peak periods, though, I do feel the strain on my body. But it's never held me back in any way."

Before we explore peak periods or the changing face of China's delivery industry, we need to go back to the beginning.

Time for a deep dive.

 

Delivery 101 

Back in 2014, while China's express delivery volume was already the highest in the world, options were far more limited than today…

In Beijing, for example, as an expat, you would usually turn to Sherpa's English-language food delivery service, which only covered a very limited number of eateries, or hit up good ole Mickey D's—which employed its own red and gold-clothed riders. This author, who never acquired a taste for either Sherpa's offerings or fast food, cannot remember ordering a single thing via delivery back then. From food to clothing to furniture, for this author: All roads still led to the brick 'n mortar store.

Fast forward a decade, and she, like most China-based urbanites, has more JD and Meituan delivery people, referred to as kuaidi xiaoge ("express brothers") and waimai xiaoge ("takeout brothers"), respectively—it is a man's world indeed—knocking on her door than friends.

Meituan is an omnipresent shopping platform for consumer products and retail services, delivering to your doorstep anything from veggie samosas to a 27-inch hard-side check-in suitcase within 30 minutes. Speaking from experience, indeed.

In today's China: Everything is deliverable.

Rain or shine, heat or ice, China's urban landscape is characterized by a stream of delivery people on electric scooters dashing along the streets and pavements, or couriers in karts bopping along the bumpy roads.

When touching on this topic during a phone conversation with a few friends living near the city of Antwerp, Belgium, one remarked: "We are also seeing more and more Deliveroo riders in the streets nowadays. I saw two in my street yesterday!" Deliveroo is a popular takeout and grocery delivery service there.

"Cute," this author replied, "But behold…" and pointed her phone camera to reveal a delivery-driver-filled street in Beijing's Sanlitun commercial area, almost getting hit by a delivery kart in the process. How befitting.

China currently features three different types of courier services: intra-city, domestic inter-city and international. One of the most fascinating intra-city options is Shansong (literally "flash delivery"). This particular service needs only 20-ish minutes for a 5-km delivery and 30-ish minutes for a 10-km delivery, and will set the user placing the order back just $3 or 4. Forgot your keys at the office? No problem, just ask your colleagues to "shansong them."

Again, speaking from experience.

The hurry flurry 

The country's express delivery service has witnessed astronomical growth in the last decade. Here are some stats and figures to paint an up-to-date picture:

The express delivery sector handled 132.07 billion parcels nationwide in 2023, up 19.4 percent year on year. China's parcel delivery volume figure has ranked first in the world for 10 consecutive years, according to the State Post Bureau (SPB) in early January.

During peak delivery season, which begins in November with China's annual Double 11 online shopping festival and ends in February, after the Spring Festival holiday, the volumes increase.

Double 11, launched in 2009, is a carnival of consumption during which Chinese consumers try to get the best bang for their buck from retailers, which have traditionally offered deep discounts. Spring Festival or Chinese New Year, which falls on February 10 this year, is China's biggest annual holiday, also known as a time for family reunion and gift-giving.

The country's express delivery industry handled more than 700 million parcels during the 2023 Spring Festival holiday from January 21 to 27, the first Spring Festival after COVID-19, skyrocketing 192.9 percent from the pre-pandemic 2019 figure, according to the SPB. 

And on the horizon looms further expansion… and intensified competition.

May the best 'man' win 

In a January 22 article on the increasing competitiveness of the nation's courier enterprises, Chinese newspaper Global Times reported that "As of late 2023, the country had more than 9,600 A-grade logistics enterprises, like JDL, which are categorized based on their business performance and market competitiveness." By comparison, according to the China Federation of Logistics and Purchasing, in late 2021, the country had just 495 such logistics enterprises.

Unlike in Belgium, for instance, where ordering takeout or groceries is not a daily activity, delivery services have become an inseparable part of life in China. For one, the intense competition in the food delivery landscape has led to what you might almost call a gamification of the delivery app user experience. For example, some delivery apps have rewarded purchases with coupons users can send to their friends.

Coupons, low delivery fees, no fees... It's all about consumption: hook, line and sinker.

Plus, the landscape is changing fast. In recent years, we've seen the industry embrace timely trends from eco-friendly outfits worn by delivery riders to autonomous delivery. JD.com, for one, is already operating over 700 outdoor and indoor autonomous delivery vehicles in China.

But of course, not everything is hunky-dory in Delivery Ville.

Each year, the country's express courier industry generates more than 9 million tons of paper waste and about 1.8 million tons of plastic waste, according to a 2021 Xinhua News Agency report. The Chinese Government has since encouraged the express delivery industry to use green packaging and reduce packaging waste.

Consider the fate of retail stores… Will a decline in foot traffic eventually lead to their demise?

Food for thought.

Delivery workers take part in the parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China in Beijing on October 1, 2019(XINHUA) 

Brothers & sisters 

In mid-January, a short video of a full-time Shanghai-based "takeout brother" who claimed to have racked up 1 million yuan ($139,600) in three years was abuzz on Chinese social media platforms.

Whereas his claim was met with skepticism, what is true is that many people with full-time jobs do dabble in the occasional delivery gig to make some extra cash.

With 1.08 billion mobile Internet users as of June 2023, China's Internet sector has created a breeding ground for the gig economy. An estimated 200 million gig workers across the country account for nearly a quarter of China's total workforce, according to Beijing-based consulting firm Daxue Consulting.

But this thriving gig economy is not without its challenges. Food delivery apps, for example, are notorious for using a strict algorithm to reduce couriers' chances of earning bonuses, the consulting firm added. Plus, for delivery drivers across China, the pressure to deliver orders on time is intense, with customer reviews and late delivery penalties affecting earnings. This often forces drivers to speed through their routes, rain or shine, heat or ice, sometimes putting themselves in harm's way. 

Luckily, growing discontent among gig workers in 2021 prompted authorities to call on online platforms to improve conditions for food delivery, logistics and transportation workers by raising wages and improving safety.

And since then, coincidence or not, a growing number of women workers have been joining the gig economy as ride-hailing drivers, food delivery riders and couriers. Women now make up about 20 percent of China's delivery force, according to Chinese magazine Lifeweek. That's twice as many as in 2020.

But in the male-dominated delivery industry, female workers often face challenges such as the physically taxing nature of the job.

So why do more and more women feel confident opting to work in this sector?

One reason is that in China: Anyone can deliver anything.

According to He, the fact that she didn't need to bring anything to work other than her wonderful self, was a major advantage. "At JDL, they provide you with the company karts to make your rounds. But if I were to work elsewhere, I'd still need my scooter," she explained. Lower barrier to entry: check. This "Jing Dong auntie," as children in the compounds she regularly visits affectionately call her, continued, "The work hours also allow me to be home for my children, to feed them, to make sure they do their homework, and so on. To be a hands-on mom." Though working flexible hours, He is a full-time JDL worker.

Plus, algorithmic control aside, this is a sector where performance equals pay, helping women avoid the impact of gender pay-gaps.

When asked about safety, another major deal-maker or -breaker for women everywhere, she laughed out loud and said, "Of course I'm not afraid for my safety. I've never been afraid. Not even once." China is arguably one of the safest places in the world to live in.

And on that note, the time had come for us to wrap up our conversation, and for He to hop into her kart and embark on her third and final delivery round of the day.

Jingdong ayi lai la!

(Print Edition: Supercharged) 

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson 

Comments to elsbeth@cicgamericas.com  

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