Food growers tap e-commerce to cover lost sales

Ding Yining
Wholesale and consumer produce markets have been disrupted by the ongoing novel coronavirus epidemic, prompting many planters to seek out buyers online.
Ding Yining

Zhang Zhenqiang grows pears in Jilin Province. Over recent years, he's been selling a small portion of his output online. But this month, he's been relying more and more on digital sales as farmers like him are grappling with disruptions caused by the novel coronavirus pneumonia outbreak.

Since January, virus containment measures have closed wholesale produce markets and restricted transport to urban centers. Other challenges include shortages of delivery staff and packaging materials.

"Online sales on an average day have climbed to 10,000 orders. This is double the normal amount, which may help cover at least part of my losses," Zhang said.

An asparagus grower, Li Qiulan, from Qingdao, is already making online marketing preparations for the next season. "We hope to use this income from online sales to make an early start at resuming normal growing and harvesting so we won't suffer further losses," she said.

Some 1 billion yuan (US$140 million) worth of relief funds have been set aside by Alibaba for agricultural companies that have had difficulties reaching urban consumers.

Food growers tap e-commerce to cover lost sales
Ti Gong

Farmers increasingly jump to online channels to sell their products in recent days. 

"Bridging the gap means creating a win-win solution for food growers and consumers," said Zhu Xia, senior director of Tmall's food business.

The e-commerce site said 12,000 tons of agricultural products have been sold via Taobao since last week and it's expediting distribution of agri-foods from 24 growing zones.

Logistical support has been crucial in getting goods to consumers.

JD said it will prioritize distribution to ensure supply of fresh food, and also expedite the assessment of online store fronts selling fresh produce.

Special measures like logistics supply and special promotions for agricultural products are also being launched and distributors can enjoy discounts to access cold-storage delivery facilities. 

Food growers tap e-commerce to cover lost sales
Ti Gong

However some consumers worry that transportation will comprise the quality of fresh food, or that bulk orders are not a viable option for small families or solo shoppers.

“I ordered an online delivery of fruits and vegetables a few days ago, only to find that I had to give away some vegetables to friends nearby," said a Shanghai resident named Wang who lives in Songjiang District.

Meicai, a distributor which supplies bulk ingredients to local restaurants, started to allow individual buyers to order from its online shop last week.

Its vegetable prices are cheaper for purchases above 2.5 kilograms to encourage shoppers to buy in larger amounts.

Shanghai consultant Sherry Yao, who has been working from home for more than a week, said bulk purchasing is easier for her since she has to prepare meal everyday for her family, and online vendors like Meicai are among her top choices. 

"I can reduce visits to wet markets and hypermarkets by bulk purchasing from online vendors," she said.

Group-buying website Pinduoduo said in January that fruit sales increased by 120 percent from a year ago and staples such as rice, meat and cooking oil increased by 140 percent.

On Pinduoduo, more than 280,000 types of agricultural products, from nearly 400 growing areas, are available and 500 million yuan in subsidies are being offered to shoppers.

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