Online fresh food trend sweeps farmers' markets

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Though leaving work after local farmers' markets closed around 7 p.m., Chen Fang, a Beijing-based accountant, still managed to make five tasty dishes for her child's birthday.

For Chen, who loves food and cooking, buying fresh produce online has become her new routine, displacing her old habit of purchasing ingredients from farmers' markets.

"Why bother going to produce markets? With a simple click on my phone, I can order lobsters from Boston, cherries from Chile and organic tomatoes before heading home and find them on my doorstep when I arrive," she said.

Consumers like Chen are not alone as online grocery platforms that can deliver food at the touch of a button, 24 hours a day, are springing up and booming in Chinese cities, especially after the country's e-commerce giants like Alibaba and poured money into supply chain and logistics to lead the market.

Data from consulting firm iResearch shows China's fresh food e-commerce trading volume exceeded 200 billion yuan (28.4 billion U.S. dollars) last year, and the number is expected to soar to 700 billion in 2022, representing huge market potential.

"I don't know how to pick out vegetables, and vendors at farmers' markets might overcharge me. Buying fresh food online is more transparent," said Li Feifei, a 23-year-old IT worker in the city of Suzhou, east China's Jiangsu Province, who is also a regular customer of online food platform Dingdong.

In Li's view, her peers prefer not to visit traditional produce markets because they consider them untidy, out of fashion and only suitable for the elderly.

While convenience offered by online service is like a magnet for some consumers, concerns about online groceries still remain in terms of food waste and quality.

Zhang Xiuping, a housewife living in Beijing's Chaoyang District, often complains that her husband, who loves buying fresh produce from a Tencent-backed platform Miss Fresh, orders too much for their needs, causing food in their fridge to go bad.

"I am not a fan of buying groceries online. Those products are not as fresh as those I buy from local farmers' markets," Zhang said.

Zhang's go-to place every day is Sanyuanli Market, an iconic farmers' market located in the embassy area in Chaoyang District, renowned for providing fresh meat, fruit and seasonings from all over the world for the local expat community and nearby five-star hotels.

Interestingly, it is also a traditional market that seems to have remained unharmed as fresh food e-commerce marches ahead.

"If you live in Beijing and love to cook, you must know Sanyuanli. It has stayed in the game despite the popularity of online shopping, and has even become a hit market in China," said Tian Yanfeng, who is in charge of Sanyuanli Market.

Brittany, from Detroit, the United States, was invited by her Chinese friend to tour around Sanyuanli during her trip to Beijing. "It's such a high-end place with everything fresh. I took pictures and will post them on my Instagram," Brittany said.

Exotic fruits and vegetables like star fruit, lemongrass, porcini, fresh seafood, cheeses, rosemary and bulk chocolates are all available in the market, sometimes at rock-bottom prices.

According to Tian, more than three decades of experience have imbued the 144 stall owners with knowledge of how to source all manner of products to meet the most diversified consumer requests.

"That's the secret. And we are doing everything we can to make the market a hangout, even a tourist spot," she said.

Adapting to the trend of shopping online for fresh food, Sanyuanli is also going online.

"Many consumers are ordering fresh produce through acquainted vendors, paying via WeChat and using 'Shansong,' an intra-city delivery service that guarantees on-time delivery," Tian said.

Alibaba's Freshippo is leading the way in reshaping offline markets by serving consumers who live within a 3 km radius.

In the store, workers can be seen moving around picking from shelves, filling reusable bags they clip to a conveyor belt that runs across the ceiling to where orders are collated and packaged up. Scooter drivers then get the orders to consumers within 30 minutes.

Zhao Ping, an expert with the Academy of China Council for the Promotion of International Trade, said nowadays Chinese farmers' markets are making themselves more attractive due to external challenges mainly caused by online groceries.

Farmers' markets in the eastern city of Nanjing, for instance, are promoting mobile payment, quality control and store refurbishment, with every stall attached with a QR code, through which consumers can know exactly the source and date of food and even the social credit record of the vendor.

"Traditional farmers' markets may still have a place in the huge fresh food market by improving customer experience and ensuring quality. Selling online is also a smart choice," Zhao said. 

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