The struggle, as the say, is real. Getting deliveries from shops and retailers is nearly impossible now. "Group Buying" (团购 tuángòu ) has evolved as the primary source of getting anything from water, to groceries, to baked goods, to alcohol and cigarettes, to pet supplies throughout the city, and it's actually what the local government is now suggesting that people should do.
Group buying — How does it work?
WeChat Groups and WeChat MiniPrograms: The two major group buying WeChat MiniPrograms are: Qun Jie Long (群接龙) and Kuai Tuan Tuan (快团团). They work very similar to each other. Someone creates a group with the intention of buying a product or a basket of products, uses the app to get together a group of people that agree to join in on that group purchase, and then that person contacts the supplier and arranges the deal.
That person — the one that's initiating the group purchase — is called the Tuanzhang (团长), the "Group Master". In the pre-lockdown era, these apps were already very popular with price-sensitive customers and also with people that wanted to source niche products directly from suppliers — like getting organic products directly from a farm, for example.
Now, during the lockdown, with most retailers shut down or swamped and unable to meet food demand — hello, DingDong — these app are filling the gap in the market, agreeing to supply goods in quantity to whole compounds ordering as a single purchaser.
What I can buy with group buying ?
During the lockdown, group buys are usually for essential stuff — veggies, groceries, fruit, meat — but there's others for bread and bakery or coffee beans. Usually, they group products together and you aren't able to pick exactly what you want.
Here's a picture of the 188rmb mystery box from Baker & Spice. The Group Master ensures that's the same price as before the lockdown.
What are the different types of group buying?
There's essentially three different ways these transactions are being organized and carried out. Long story short, you want to be careful about getting involved with the first two and concentrate your energy on getting involved with the third.
1. Fantasy group buys. Someone expresses an interest in buying something without knowing if that restaurant or supplier is even willing or able to deliver, and sets up a group buy. Maybe you've seen the Shake Shack group buys going around? Are they even open? This is more that people are really dying for a burger and this is their way of showing this desire to the world.
2. City-wide group buys. Someone works with a supplier and then posts a group buy and everyone in Shanghai can join. The problem here is that they usually have a minimum amount of orders per compound that need to be reached. So even if you join that group buy, but no one else in your compound joins in, then your order will get cancelled and you'll (hopefully) get your money refunded. Success rate is not good.
3. Compound / building group buys. These are the ones you want to try to find. This is usually just your neighbor trying to organize everyone in the building to group buy the basics — eggs, veggies, water and dairy products. Sometimes interesting items will come up — see the Baker & Spice "mystery package" — and there's a high chance you'll get your order.
How do I find a group buy?
In most of the cases, during the current lockdown, the Group Master usually reaches out to people in the immediate vicinity though neighborhood WeChat groups. So, you want to be in your neighborhood WeChat group, and through that, you'll find out about more split off groups for more specific types of products.
If you don't know any neighbors that can add you to a group, call your neighborhood committee. In most cases, they are the ones that initiated the groups in the first place. More well-known, established compounds also have groups for expats living in that compound, looking for imported goods.
You want to be careful with random group purchases that you find outside your building / compound's WeChat group. The whole point of a group purchase right now is to have one large delivery to the same compound, so a group purchase spread over many compounds doesn't make much sense right now and is most likely a scam. More on that below.
Can I initiate my own group buy?
Yes, everyone can create a new group buy and become a Group Master, and then get people to join. But keep in mind it's quite a lot of work. You have to gather all the information about the product you want to purchase, share the information in the groups, then arrange with the supplier, the neighborhood committee, and often the bao'ans for distribution to the apartments. We spoke to a few Group Masters and they all mentioned that it's a relatively unrewarding job — a lot of neighbors complain if it doesn't goes smooth but very few actually thank the Group Master if it goes well.
Remember, always thank your Group Master. Be polite. They're doing you a solid.
Does the person who initiates the group buy make money ?
Some do. Some don't. Some aren't trying to. Some are really trying to. Maybe you've seen some pretty high prices on those fruit baskets?
There are two ways a Group Master could make money off the transaction. Either they talk to the vendor that they plan to purchase from and ask to get a commission...
...or they simply mark up the prices.
Since group buys are usually a basket of products that isn't available for purchase otherwise, you often wouldn't know the real market price of what you are purchasing. The few Group Masters we spoke to during this lockdown, however, all mentioned that they are not taking a cut or getting paid — their main motivation was always to get products for themselves and help their community at the same time.
Usually, your neighbor two floors up isn't trying to make money off the people they're cohabitating with.
So... sounds pretty easy! Food problems solved?
Well. Nothing is easy right now. If you haven't noticed.
It's just, in this current situation, you have a much higher chance of getting the items you need by joining group buys than by trying yourself using an online supermarket's app.
Keep in mind, however, that not all group purchases work out. Very often someone creates a group for an item they wish to buy, without knowing if that specific supplier is actually able to deliver (see: group purchases for Shake Shack orders).
And it can take up a lot of your time, browsing through groups to find a suitable group buy, and then joining it before it's closed.
Good thing we all have plenty of time on our hands.
Also, many compounds have now implemented limitations on how many group purchases they allow, and often those are limited to essential items.
The other problem is often the "last mile", the delivery from the compound door to your apartment. We hear reports of deliveries being left outside the compound gate because the bao'ans don't have the time or energy to distribute them to all apartments. Keeping a good relationship with your compound bao'an can sometimes be very helpful.
How do I pay?
There are different systems, but the most common one is that once you decided to join a group purchase, you pay right away, usually with WeChat — red envelope to your Group Master neighbor in the group. For group buys that go through the two MiniPrograms mentioned above, the money doesn't go to the personal account of the Group Master but actually gets collected by the apps and then transferred to the supplier.
How do I spot the scammers?
That's really tricky. Scams are very common. It's not hard to understand why. It's a financial transaction between three parties that don't know each other and have never done business together. At the same time, due to the nature of group buying where a large number of people have to pre-pay, there's usually large amounts of money involved up front. A perfect place for scammers.
So, use common sense. When you see someone posting a group buy for a bunch of burgers from Shake Shack and asks you to pay upfront... well, that seems a little dubious, doesn't it.
In the current situation, it's recommended to only purchase from groups that are organized by one of your neighbors for the simple reason that, hey, you know where they live. In larger compounds, ask the person that's sending you the group buy link what building they live if you don't trust them.
...even if the Group Master is honest and has the best intentions, it's still possible that they are getting scammed by the supplier and will never receive the products.
You can't really protect yourself from that.
As always, use common sense and stay away from things that look fishy or are too good to be true. Don't invest too much money into it, since there's always a chance it won't work out. Keep things simple, keep things in your immediate area, and don't invest all your group buys in one basket.
So what exactly am I looking for?
You're looking for a group buy that's organized by using the MiniPrograms mentioned above, Qun Jie Long and Kuai Tuan Tuan. We have a step-by-step guide for both apps below. Here's how those usually look like when someone shares them in WeChat groups:
Another popular option that recently emerged is using the "Group Note" feature of WeChat. Someone opens a group with the purpose of buying something, creates a group notice, and whoever wants to join in shares a note on the notices. Here's a screenshot of how this usually looks:
The least and most insecure option is talking to a Group Master directly — someone you don't know soliciting you to join in on one. That's usually a scam. Stay away from those.
Can you give me a step-by-step guide?
This is the landing page of a group purchase for a 228rmb fruit basket on 快团团.
Scroll down to see a list of all those that have already joined the group buy.
To join the group buy, simply click the green button.
The next page looks very much like a normal checkout page. You leave your address and personal information in the box on the top.
That's it. Usually the follow up, if the group purchased got executed and how and where it will get delivered gets discusse in the WeChat group chats.
This is the landing page of 群接龙 for a fish group buy.
Scroll down to see the various pages and how many people have joined in so far.
Join the group buy with the large green button. The rest of the checkout process then looks again similar as other e-commerce apps.