A delivery man checks his phone in Beijing on April 9, 2019. (Image credit: TechNode/Cassidy McDonald)

China’s logistics industry had a troubled week just as the industry ramps up for the Singles Day high season with reports of delivery driver strikes across the country. Alibaba-backed Yunda Express joined a boycott against a Southeast Asian rival that is expanding quickly into the Chinese market. Meanwhile, Yiguo, the Alibaba-backed fresh produce retailer, went bankrupt.

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China’s e-commerce and retail market offers a fire hose of products, choices, business models, rapidly changing content, and more. Here’s what you need to know about China’s online retail market for the week of Oct. 22 – 28.

Courier protests ahead of Singles Day

Chinese logistics firms are facing pushback from their delivery fleets amid widely circulating reports about labor strikes on social media platforms over the last week. The strikes reportedly affected several major couriers in the country—STO Express, YTO Express, ZTO Express, Best Express, and Yunda Express. Operations for the five companies, collectively known as “’Four Tong One Da” in reference to the second characters in their Chinese names, are significantly hampered in second- and third-tier cities, according to reports.

The “deliveryman strike” hashtag on China’s microblogging platform Weibo drew 13 million views, while more than 13,000 Weibo users joined the discussion. Customers also flooded other social platforms like Douban (in Chinese) and Baidu Tieba to express their discontent with delayed parcel deliveries.

Two delivery driver strikes took place on Oct. 19: one in Fuzhou, a city in eastern Fujian province, and another in Shanghai, according to China Labour Bulletin’s Strike Map. There have been at least 25 courier strikes this year, according to the map. Workers are protesting lowered wages or delayed pay.

The uncertainties brought by the strikes have raised concern over e-commerce platforms’ order fulfillment capacity, as the industry gears up for the busiest shopping season of the year ahead of the Nov. 11 Singles Day promotion. Several couriers denied strike rumors, telling local media that their offline distribution centers are “operating normally” in preparation for the upcoming shopping festival. (Lieyunwang.com, in Chinese)

Boycott of SEA interloper

Chinese logistics firm Yunda Express has prohibited all of its offline franchisees from cooperating with newcomer J&T Express. Both receiving or delivering parcels on behalf of the Southeast Asian rival is forbidden, according to a statement made public on Oct. 19, local media reported. Orders in process will be returned to the sender or will require the receiver to pick them up. Franchisees that violate the rules will receive a fine of up to RMB 5,000 ($745). Yunda’s move follows shortly after local rivals like YTO Express and STO Express instituted similar rules.

Given the immensity of China’s logistics landscape, most Chinese courier companies operate under a franchise-based model in order to achieve economies of scale. The franchise partnership is technically an exclusive deal that prohibits franchise agents from cooperating with other couriers, but it is a common practice for franchisees to cooperate with several logistics brands at the same time.

By reiterating the exclusive operating rules, Yunda is fending off competition from J&T, the delivery upstart that began expanding aggressively in China beginning in March. J&T seized market share by offering subsidies and leveraging rivals’ existing distribution networks, a move called “network squatting.”

J&T was founded in 2015 by the founder of Oppo Indonesia, Li Jie, with funding support from Duan Yongping, the Chinese billionaire entrepreneur behind smartphone brands Oppo, Vivo, and a key investor of Pinduoduo. In China, J&T cooperates with e-commerce players like Pinduoduo, Suning.com, and Douyin. (Southern Metropolis Daily, in Chinese)

Another fresh produce casualty

Yiguo, once a prominent Chinese fresh produce e-commerce platform, is undergoing bankruptcy and reorganization procedures, marking the fallout of yet another high-profile player in the sector. The company accrued debt totaling RMB 2.3 billion and held net assets of RMB 1.1 billion as of June this year, according to local media.

Yiguo is a prominent fresh food brand under Alibaba, which holds a more-than 35% stake in the company through affiliated companies. Its most recent $300 million round was raised from Alibaba’s Tmall in 2017.

The Alibaba tie-up helped Yiguo multiply its gross merchandise value thanks to traffic support from Tmall’s fresh produce business, Tmall Supermarket Fresh. However, overreliance on Alibaba’s support made the company vulnerable to external changes. In 2018, Alibaba announced that it was handing over operations of Tmall Supermarket Fresh from Yiguo to its own retail store chain Freshippo. The shift dealt a heavy blow to Yiguo’s business, which drew over 90% of its orders from Tmall in 2017. The platform had been in a tailspin ever since.

Just 10 months after the bankruptcy of rival Taojiji, Yiguo is another cautionary tale for fresh produce e-commerce platforms despite a boost this year from the pandemic lockdown period. (Tencent, in Chinese)

Emma Lee

Emma Lee is Shanghai-based tech writer, covering startups and tech happenings in China and Asia in general. We are looking for stories related to tech and China. Reach her at lixin@technode.com.