Weaving between traffic on scooters, sprinting through shopping malls or cramming into office elevators, food-delivery workers have fast become a staple of daily life in China’s cities. In their signature outfits, a phone in one hand and a plastic bag in the other, they’re impossible to miss, too.
Food delivery is arguably the most important food trend in China today. It’s changing what people eat, as well as where and when they eat. It’s changing the concept of the restaurant and where to locate them in cities. It’s even changing the flow of people in China’s cities.
According to a report by Meituan-Dianping, an online retailer (with about 310 million active users and 14.7 million daily transactions), $31.9 billion was spent on food delivery in China in 2017. The sector is dominated by two national competitors, Meituan and Ele.me, who together have 95 percent of the market (with the remainder made up by small, regional players).The explosion of food delivery in China is attributed in part to urbanization, including the density of the urban environment — which is seven times denser than in the US. It is also attributed to the role of digitization, with leading e-commerce companies plugging food-delivery services into their mature physical (e.g. delivery network) and digital (e.g. mobile payment) infrastructures.
Roy Lin, a researcher at open data-mapping organization InVisibleCities, has studied the food-delivery phenomenon. “Urban planning and zoning designs have offered a great context for food delivery to flourish,” he says. “Shanghai and other cities were developed in the past 20 years following the US car-centric grid density. However, the cost of using cars in China and the relative difficulty of moving around the city has created favorable conditions for delivery to flourish.”
Price is a critical factor, too. Food delivery in China is a competitive market, in which prices are low and demand is high. It’s hard to beat convenience when the price is right. And while round-the-clock convenience has long been a feature of many cities, in China it means access not just to fast-food but to high-quality restaurant food, too — from weekday lunches to elaborate family-style Sichuan dinner spreads to food from bakeries, cafés and supermarkets.
“Ten years ago, we loved the instant noodle because of its convenience,” said Liu Zhangming, an analyst for TF Securities, in an interview with the South China Morning Post. “But 10 years later, it has faded away from our lives because we can order quick, easy and higher-quality meals online, which are not all that expensive and still very convenient.”
This is a 12-part series on Food Megacity: how urbanization and technology are changing the way China eats. The full series can be found here.