LONDON — In order to reboot the economy, and ease unemployment in post-COVID-19 China, Beijing reversed its attitude on street vendors and sellers, whose existence was considered damaging to China’s rapid urbanization for almost a decade.
This week, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang promised government support for them.
“The street-stall and small-store economy is an important source of employment and human culinary culture — it’s part of China’s livelihood just as much as larger, high-end businesses,” Li told small business owners during his inspection trip earlier this week in Yantai. “The country will only get better once markets, enterprises and individual traders get back on their feet and develop.”
Stabilizing the job market is a top priority on Chinese policymakers’ agendas this year. Despite official data showing the unemployment rate was 6 percent in April, up to 10 percent of people officially employed in China could actually be out of work, according to Societe Generale.
Zhu Min, an economist and former deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund, suggested that street vending is both an emergency solution to the economic woes brought on by the coronavirus pandemic as well as an economic norm.
With accessible digital payment on WeChat and Alipay, strict recycling rules in place and more advanced urban infrastructures, it’s unlikely one will see streets filled with grease and waste again once the policy takes effect. Instead, people can bring goods, services and a sense of ebullience to the street, with minimized risk of frauds and environmental pollution.
Street food and grocery vendors, who sell popular cheap eats or homegrown products, are direct beneficiaries, and those who are out of jobs due to the pandemic now have a way to survive.
“Street vending has always been a low-threshold way for the disadvantaged and people with a low and middle income to make a living,” Dong Dengxin, professor at the Institute of Finance, Wuhan University of Science and Technology, told the local press. “Opening-up street markets would not only increase employment but also stimulate consumption among grassroots communities whose livelihoods have been greatly influenced during the outbreak.”
The shift in policy is also a great opportunity for independent fashion brands and retailers to come up with creative and engaging events to drive sales and user acquisition while struggling manufacturers can liquidate canceled international orders. Retailers can also now use external areas outside the stores to increase their productivity.
Wentong Zhan, a Beijing-based designer with a full-time job at a Chinese fashion brand, has been selling at the plaza outside luxury mall SKP-S since he saw the news.
“I am on my second day. Lots of people are waiting for cars here, so the traffic is good. I am the only one selling clothing and accessories. I had no idea what would sell well, so I only brought a few things from my studio. All the T-shirts got sold out yesterday. They are 150 renminbi each, either designed by me or my friends,” Zhan said.
He observed that those who shop from vendors are mostly young people working in the nearby area, and they would price match online before making the purchase.
“You can’t sell too pricey items, and they would check on Taobao before buying from you. They only pay when they see the T-shirt is not available online. I think they rather enjoy buying directly from me because they don’t need to wait for delivery, and they are cool even if the size is not a perfect fit,” he added.
Fashion boutiques are still assessing the best way to capitalize on the new regulation. Tasha Liu, founder of Labelhood in Shanghai, said she is looking at options to do something creative with its external space, as the rules of using outdoor space have been strict in the city.
Eric Young, owner of the fashion boutique Le Monde de SHC, is considering turning part of its outdoor space on the leafy sidewalk into a café. He added that the new rules will also help vintage and flower markets, which have diminished in recent years, to make a comeback.
Will Zhang, founder of Chongqing’s retail franchise SND, said he is open to joining the kind of more curated and high brow marketplaces that could spring up. “Entry-level items shall do well. Places like Jiefangbei pedestrian street, Beicheng Tianjie plaza and the square outside Shin Kong Place in Chongqing are ideal locations to host open markets,” he said.
There are already several high brow weekend markets in cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Xiamen, where designers sell off inventory and fashion lovers trade their secondhand clothes, with alcohol for sale and outdoor space for children to run around.
Designer Uma Wang said this provides a great opportunity for her to sell Jianbing, a traditional Chinese savory street food similar to crepes, to people in her neighborhood, which has been a dream of her for years.
Yushan Li of men’s wear brand Pronounce said the new rules will allow brands to be more flexible with creative pop-up events and gatherings with its followers.
“Imagine you arrange special edition T-shirts as if they are fruits and vegetables, and put them in a grocery packaging — that would be super fun,” Li added.