Women couriers draw attention amid e-commerce boom

A delivery station with only female couriers has caught public attention, as China observes International Women's Day on Thursday.

A delivery station with only female couriers has caught public attention, as China observes International Women's Day on Thursday.

Chen Yu, 37, and her team of female couriers have made sufficient preparations for the shopping spree on Women's Day, when e-commerce websites in China typically tout special offers to grab a share of the market.

Chen is the boss and one of the couriers at her own package delivery station in Qingshen County, southwest China's Sichuan Province. For years, her courier station has been recruiting only female employees.

"Women are typically better in communication and are more patient," Chen said.

In an industry that mainly relies on male couriers, Chen's team of 17 female couriers has been the subject of local attention.

Before the Women's Day shopping bonanza, Chen arranged vacations for her employees.

"On Women's Day there are usually a large number of packages, so I want to make sure everyone is ready," Chen said.

The female-only courier team was not intentional, however. Chen said that at the beginning, she also hired male couriers, who are physically stronger than women.

"At the time, locals here did not know much about the courier business, but the male couriers lacked the patience to explain the business to our customers," she said.

Chen said that women employees "promote the business better," and even require lower salaries.

The female team helped Chen's station become one of the most popular, and in 2015 the station was named an "Excellent Courier Station" in Meishan City, which administers Qingshen County.

"Up to 70 percent of the local individual courier business is done in my station," Chen said.

She joined the business 10 years ago when she first heard about the earning potential from a friend who was working in Zhejiang Province. China's e-commerce giant Alibaba is based in Hangzhou, capital city of this eastern province.

"I closed my snack bar and switched to it," Chen recalled. "My family all shook their heads at my decision."

Chen got a business license in 2009, when there were only two courier stations in the county. She had two employees: one looking after the station, and the other delivering packages.

Courier delivery is heavy labor. Chen still remembers taking a box to the fifth floor of a building without an elevator.

"It was so heavy that I stopped at the third floor and cried desperately," she said.

But a strong sense of perseverance helped Chen carry on. And things are completely different today.

China's digital economy totaled 26 trillion yuan (US$4.1 billion) in 2017, accounting for around 32 percent of national GDP, according to the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology. Its 18-percent growth substantially outpaced the overall economy, which grew 6.9 percent in 2017.

The trend is likely to continue in the future and the value of China's digital economy is expected to hit US$16 trillion by 2035.

"China is already more digitalized than many observers appreciate and has the potential to set the world's digital frontier in coming decades," the McKinsey Global Institute said in a recent report.

China is the world's largest e-commerce market, accounting for more than 40 percent of the value of worldwide transactions, up from less than 1 percent a decade ago. In terms of mobile payments, China has a transaction value 11 times that of the United States, according to the report.

In the past decade, Chen's station expanded by three times in area, and daily deliveries increased from 20 on average to more than 2,000.

"People can buy almost anything on the Internet, and business has been soaring," Chen said. "On big shopping days like Singles' Day, we have to get up around 5am and work until dark."

Chen's employees have worked in the station for a long time.

"This is like their second home," Chen said.

Of the 16 female couriers, 13 are mothers. Chen often asks them to leave off work early to take care of their children.

"I used to work in a shoe factory, and there was a lot of work to do, and I could barely go home to take care of my child," said Wen Yuhua, an employee at the station. "Now I can both do my work and attend my child at home."

Wen said that she and her colleagues usually work together to deliver heavy packages.

For this year's Women's Day, Chen has prepared gifts for every employee. Wen cooked for the staff.

"I hope the best for them," Chen said.