It used to be the case that the discount sections in Chinese supermarkets were dominated by pensioners with the time and inclination to hunt for bargains.
Now, thanks to the emergence of several new stores specialising in sales of soon-to-expire goods, younger Chinese are shopping in a similar way, although often more as a means to prevent waste.
Since 2019 hundreds of stores have appeared across the country, with high-tech advertising that alerts customers to the arrival of new goods. The leader in the field is the HotMaxx chain, with over 400 outlets scattered across Beijing, Shanghai and other affluent cities. The products – usually dry snacks, noodles, drinks and personal hygiene products – can be as much as 75% cheaper in these stores which carry items that often only have a couple of months left before their use-by dates expire.
Xinhua profiled Wu Lin, a 19 year-old student, who said that he shops at the discount stores because they save him money whilst also “protecting the environment”.
At least 35 million tonnes of foodgoes to waste in China every year, with about half of it binned at the retail or household consumption phase of the cycle, according to government figures. The scale of the wastage is more galling in a context in which China imports a lot of its food supply. Disposal of the waste can also be difficult in cities where land space is considered scarce.
In 2013 Chinese leader Xi Jinping lent his personal support to a ‘Clean Your Plate’ campaign by limiting the number of dishes that officials could order at work functions and banquets. Since then, he has called on the wider population repeatedly to find ways to tackle the problem, arguing again that “waste is shameful and thriftiness is honourable” in a plea to the public in August last year (see WiC507).
In April the National People’s Congress passed a food waste law that mandated fines for restaurant- goers with excessive leftovers and which also punishes waiters who make a habit of encouraging diners to order more food than they need (although it’s not clear how well the legislation has been enforced across China’s millions of eateries).
Commentators make the case that younger Chinese are more comfortable with the idea of frugality because – unlike many of the older generation – they didn’t grow up in an era of enforced scarcity. Younger people are also more conscious of their health and more likely to be concerned at the environmental impact of wasted food.
According to iiMedia Research, almost 50% of the customers shopping at shops like HotMaxx are between 26 and 35.
Help groups have also proliferated online to encourage the practice. They exchange tips on what to buy and reaffirm that there is no shame in shopping for heavily discounted goods. Sales in the sector are now worth at least Rmb19 billion ($2.93 billion), according to the LeadLeo Research Institute.
There are a few critics of the trend, however. Some commentators worry about quality control in the supply chain for soon-to-expire sales, especially in situations where the goods have moved through other retailers first. And some marketers are concerned that the cut-price style of consumption could stifle investment in the sector.“If such stores become very popular, manufacturers and merchants will no longer seek to improve themselves,” one insider warned the People’s Daily.
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