The 24/7 shop that thrives on putting customers first

The shop that launched the city's 24/7 convenience market is still going strong because of its impeccable customer service and close ties to local residents. 
The 24/7 shop that thrives on putting customers first
Wang Rongjiang

Xinghuoriye Food Store, Shanghai’s first 24-hour convenience store, remains a beacon of the community.

The 24/7 shop that thrives on putting customers first
Ti Gong

Xinghuoriye Food Store in 1993 

Ubiquitous 24-hour convenience stores across the city provide a late-night resting place for deliverymen waiting for orders, a workplace for the college students ahead of project deadlines and a haven for the people feeling lost. 

They are the bright lights in the night. 

For older Shanghainese, 24hour convenience stores are nothing new. Their presence actually traces back to 1968, when a store called Xinghuoriye opened its doors. The shop still exists at the intersection of Xizang and Beijing roads. 

Xinghuo means “spark” and riye translates as “day and night.” The name derives from the well-known letter written by late Chairman Mao that contained the phrase: “A single spark can start a prairie fire.” 

True to the meaning, the original store set off a popular wave across Shanghai. 

The store still specializes mainly in food: biscuits and seaweed-flavored fried dough twists from a venerated Shanghai bakery factory, spiced beans, White Rabbit candy, ligao tang, or pearsyrup candy, and mailisu, a chocolate candy with a malted milk center. Some are older products often hard to find elsewhere. 

More than just a store, Xinghuoriye is a community of sorts. 

It’s a Friday afternoon. A small group of older people stands by the shelves, listing to a male clerk’s spiel about coffee from Malaysia. The price is very competitive at 30 yuan (US$4.36) for two bottles. 

A notice on the wall explains that coffee is approaching its use-by date. 

“Last few bottles!” the clerk cries out. “Last few bottles! Come and buy!” 

Not every customer is fooled. One middle-aged man finds more bottles tucked away in a cardboard box on the floor. 

“Your eyes are very sharp,” says the clerk. 

The two men laugh. 

Indeed, it is the warm atmosphere and personal service of the shop that attracts so many repeat customers. Word of mouth among the older generation of Shanghai is: “If you have any urgent need or difficulty, just find Xinghuo.” 

The 24/7 shop that thrives on putting customers first
Wang Rongjiang

Many older people find the flavors of their childhood in the shop. 

The 24/7 shop that thrives on putting customers first
Wang Rongjiang

Xu Bingsen, 78, is a regular customer of the store. 

Xu Bingsen, 78, doesn’t take the advice lightly. 

“When I was a child,” he says, “I suffered from asthma. I had an attack one night and one of the staff from Xinghuoriye drove a ‘yellow croaker’ (Chinese tricycle) to take me to the hospital.” 

Personal service is a fading concept in the era of online commerce, but it’s a courtesy the food shop has never forsaken. For example, the store prepares sewing kits and first-aid kits for customers, gives directions, provides hot water, helps people to call a taxi or express delivery service, and sends food to a bus station nearby. 

All the services are free of charge. 

In Xinghuoriye’s early days, there was a wet market not far away. The shop — being the only one open all hours — provided a resting place as well as hot water and towels for the vegetable suppliers who arrived before dawn with their produce. 

“When I was on the night shift, I sometimes made deliveries to the hospital, the fire station and the tram wire office in the area,” said Hu Jianhe, labor union chairman of Shanghai Xinghuoriye Industrial Co. “We also helped nearby residents repair faulty lamps.” 

The store is open even on Chinese New Year’s Eve, when other shops are closed to allow staff to dine with family at traditional reunion meals. Hu said he forfeited that pleasure for several decades to work at the store. 

“The job is very demanding,” said a senior store clerk surnamed Xu. “We have to stand all day, promote products to customers and carry boxes of stock. But it’s a good job because of the collegiality among staff and the respect from customers. Some regular customers have become my friends.” 

Living next door to the store, Xu Bingsen is one of those regular customers. He comes in almost every day. The clerks even recognize his bicycle. 

Xu invites me to his home, serving coffee he bought at Xinghuoriye. 

“It comes from Austria,” he says. “I drink coffee twice a day. Apart from coffee, I also buy chocolate, biscuits, cigarettes and wine there. The prices are affordable.” 

His father was a physician of traditional Chinese medicine, and Xu’s life reflects that influence. He gets up at five o’clock. For breakfast, he has a cream cake with coffee and several pieces of Yarsa-gumba, a fungus long used in traditional medicine. 

He has lived at his current residence since 1952, witnessing the transformation of Xinghuoriye food store over the decades. 

“The store was originally located across the road,” Xu tells me, “but it had to move to its current site when the road was widened. Since the 1990s, more imported food has appeared on the shelves.” 

Back in the early days of the shop, when the planned economy placed quotas on foodstuffs, snacks were considered a rare and special treat. 

“From my birth to the time when I was able to walk, my mother fed me only from tins of instant powdered milk,” said Xu the clerk. “But look at me. I am very healthy. When I was a child, I used to sneak spoonfuls of malted milk powder.” 

Eating powder? I was puzzled. 

“In the 1970s, only patients with medical certificates were allowed to buy a tin of malted milk,” he explained. “Therefore, it was very scarce. I ate the powder because the process of brewing it took too long and my parents were more likely to find out.” 

The 24/7 shop that thrives on putting customers first
Ti Gong

The food store was once a haven for vegetable suppliers from a local wet market. 

The 24/7 shop that thrives on putting customers first
Wang Rongjiang

In the 1970s, only patients with medical certificates could buy malted milk. 

From the 1950s to the 1980s, people were issued ration coupons that expired every 10 days. They would queue up to use the coupons to buy food, beverages, sugar, cooking oil and household necessities like soap and toilet paper before the expiry dates. 

“At Xinghuoriye, the expiration of the coupons was delayed by half a day, giving customers a little more time to purchase goods,” said Hu. 

In 1993, a local newspaper reported that a customer wanted to buy one preserved olive at Xinghuoriye. Showing no surprise or impatience, the Xinghuoriye clerk sold him a 6-gram olive for 0.1 yuan.

“To be honest, the only thing we have to offer is high-quality service,” said Shen Li, a co-manager of Xinghuo’s Xizang Road branch. “Unlike other food stores, we don’t have any products we produce ourselves.” 

Although an old store, Xinghuoriye is not averse to new ideas. It has hired several young people, like Shen who is born in 1984. Another manager is only in his 20s. 

The store today has five branches in Huangpu, Xuhui, Jing’an and Pudong districts. Only the Xizang Road branch and Nanjing Road branch open 24 hours.

“The online shopping era has dealt us a heavy blow,” said Hu. 

“Our business isn’t what it used to be, especially on the overnight shift where turnover has fallen to about 1,000 yuan. But the store will stay open 24 hours because that’s our tradition.”

The 24/7 shop that thrives on putting customers first
Ti Gong

Wang Yuxi, a clerk in the food store, was a model worker.

The 24/7 shop that thrives on putting customers first
Ti Gong

A comic book featuring Xinghuoriye Food Store

Xinghuoriye Food Store, Xizang Road branch 

Open: 24/7 

Address: 628 Xizang Rd M.

Special Reports