Corner store consumption: profiles of small Chinese convenience stores
Xiaomaibu literally means small selling department, and refers to Chinese corner shops or small convenience stores usually run by an individual or a family. The person who runs such stores may sleep inside the store. The range of products and services sold in such stores varies immensely. This post highlights such xiaomaibu in a few locations around China, looking at the most popular products sold in each store along with particular services offered that make each xiaomaibu an essential local dispenser.
Danwei previously published a illustrated article on on xiaomaibu – Chinese corner stores by Jonah Kessel.
# 1: “White bread” mobile breakfast
Location: near the entrance to Chongqing University, Chongqing
Top-selling product: Taoli (桃李) brand “Chunshu” (醇熟) packaged toast
When the store began stocking this food product several years ago, they decided to do so primarily because they had been exposed to the stereotype that “Foreigners prefer eating bread over noodles”, and hoped to attract them. Initially it was indeed primarily foreigners who bought it, “particularly Koreans” the owner said. Then, gradually, the owner witnessed a change, and before long there were just as many Chinese buying bread as there were foreigners.
Though seemingly designed to be prepared in a toaster, the bread is not consumed by most of the store’s Chinese customers (that is, university students) in this way. Most purchase it in the morning on their way into campus for class, and eat it by holding the package of (untoasted) bread in one hand and a carton of milk in the other hand. The owner termed this style “one bite, one gulp” or, washing down each bite of toast with a swig of milk. The owner said that she thought it had mostly to do with their lack of time to sit down and enjoy a lengthy breakfast as they rush to class.
#2: Sliced fruit in syrup with re-usable jar
Location: Long-distance bus station in Chongqing
Top-selling product: Huanlejia (欢乐家) sliced fruit in syrup
“I can’t speak for ‘most popular’ – all of the things I sell here are popular,” the owner of this store conceded, “but one very common choice is this [Huanlejia (欢乐家) brand] sliced fruit in syrup.” He grabbed a jar each of pineapple and peach and placed them on the counter.
It wasn’t immediately apparent why travelers are so fond of it, as consuming it required utensils and would naturally be easier while not riding a form of transportation prone to unpredictable bumps, stops, and starts such as trains and buses. Yet the owner revealed that its popularity didn’t have as much to do with the contents of the container as with the container itself. Around the lip of the glass jar is a plastic ring with a loop attached for simple carriage. “When people finish the fruit, they reuse the jar by filling it up with water or tea and carrying it with them on their trip, or they give it as a gift to whomever they are traveling to see”.
#3: Lunch and cellphone account/battery charging
Location: Residential middle school entrance in Tongren, Guizhou
Top-selling product: Tongyi (统一) brand orange juice
Although nominally a xiaomaibu, this store’s capacity as a retailer of daily-use goods and cold beverages is of only secondary importance to the throng of middle school students regularly passing through. The students’ priorities appeared to be 1) eating, and 2) charging and adding credit to their cellphones. Many students chose to add a relatively small amount of money – ten or twenty kuai in most cases. Every student who added credit to their phone also stayed for lunch, and a few also handed their cellphones over to the owner to be plugged into the powerstrip behind the counter.
Although a natural draw as a place to fill one’s stomach and cellphone accounts and batteries, the store owner does not receive any commission from China Mobile for charging their cellphones. “I [offer this service] for free in order to ‘serve the people’ more effectively,” he said, evoking the dictum of Chairman Mao to “serve the people” (wei renmin fuwu, 为人民服务). He identified the most common-selling item as the Tongyi (统一) brand orange juice beverage (鲜橙多).
#4: Cigarettes and real estate brokering
Location: Near Xiangqian Square in Wanyuan, Sichuan
Top-selling product: Yun Yan (雲焰) cigarettes
Positioned at the end of an alley of residential buildings, this xiaomaibu serves as a social hub for many apartment residents. Like other xiaomaibu, the store’s inventory has been finely tuned over the course of years to correlate with and keep pace with the evolving consumption patterns of the neighborhood. The most sold item is Yun Yan (雲焰) cigarettes, produced by Hongyunhonghe (红运红河) Tobacco Group – the price a mere ten kuai (US $1.60).
In addition to serving the neighborhood’s nicotine needs, the owner has also established herself as the area’s apartment broker. While full-time professional brokers abound in China’s dense urban areas, part-time brokers such as the owner of this xiaomaibu are the norm in smaller cities like Wanyuan. The white board is for apartments that are for sale, while the chalk writing on the door of the xiaomaibu is for advertising apartments and separate rooms within larger apartments for rent.
#5: Electric vehicle charging
Location: Qingyang District, Chengdu, Sichuan
Top-selling product: Probably hot dogs
The owner of this xiaomaibu was at a loss for deciding upon his “most popular item”, though he said that hot dogs sold consistently well on account of the children from the nearby school liking them. While this particular xiaomaibu conforms to the standards set by others across China in terms of its miniscule size (roughly the dimensions of a large walk-in closet) and convenient location (right next to a busy bus stop on a main thoroughfare), it is distinguished by its electric vehicle battery charger.
It costs vehicle owners (mostly of two-wheeled electric vehicles such as scooters and “e-bikes”) one yuan (around US $.15) to charge their batteries for ten minutes. The owner agreed to split the revenue of the charger with the company that installed it, while he himself must pay for the additional electricity consumed by the machine. The charger’s revenue varies seemingly randomly by month, ranging from around 100 kuai (US $16) up to around 300 kuai (around US $48).