With online shopping and live-streaming, the expansion of China's Internet coverage is transforming the country's vast rural heartlands into a promised land for e-commerce. Yet despite long shopping lists and an abundance of farm products to sell online, weak delivery services are making these aspirations impossible for many in the countryside.
In most cases, the furthest that delivery services are able, or willing, to reach are towns, leaving people in remote villages without the convenience of sending and receiving express packages. As this problem becomes ever more striking, in some cases dragging down rural economic growth, the government has been committed to solving the issue of the last kilometer, namely the lack of delivery services in rural areas.
The State Post Bureau (SPB), China's postal service regulator, recently issued a guideline for a pilot project for village delivery services in six provinces across the country. By the end of 2022, all villages in China are expected to have access to these delivery services if everything goes to plan. Not only will villagers be able to order goods online at their leisure, but they will be better positioned to open online stores, making money from home.
Yet whether this project can achieve success and longevity remains to be seen. Any plan must overcome the issues that have hindered the expansion of delivery services into rural areas in the last few years.
Zhang Xiaona (China Logistics Times): The express delivery sector still has a lot to do to tap into the vast rural market. Nowadays, consumers in rural areas have higher expectations for the speed, quality and frequency of delivery services, but the logistics in these areas lags far behind their demands. If the obstacles and restrictions are not removed, we cannot expect to see express delivery services make rural life richer and more convenient.
There are some tangible reasons why this sector is so underdeveloped in rural areas. Express delivery companies operate according to the rules of the market. Their primary goal is to make money, an understandable motivation. But when it comes to rural areas, villages often live far from each other. This differs greatly from the high concentration of homes and businesses in the city, and inevitably increases service costs.
Smaller populations mean smaller business opportunities, and the demand for delivery services in rural areas is currently not stable enough to persuade companies to set up branches to cater for these areas. During the harvest, the demand for such services may increase, but for the rest of the year there might be a significant reduction in business. A lack of adequate transport infrastructure also poses a major challenge to delivery companies in some regions.
Although China's transportation network has made great headway in recent decades, some rural areas remain difficult to reach, particularly in the central and western parts of the country. These access issues are compounded by the fact that agricultural products often require speedier transportation than other commodities.
The last-kilometer issue remains a significant problem. Fees and charges do not always follow the same standards, with one collection point sometimes handling business for several delivery companies. Overcoming these hurdles remains a big challenge for the companies, the government and residents.
Zhao Guojun (People's Daily): Were express delivery services to be available in villages, they would surely help farmers sell their agricultural products and expand rural consumption. In this sense, courier services can play a big role in developing the rural economy. In fact, as early as 2014 SPB launched a campaign offering delivery services in rural areas. However, more needs to be done.
Every location must employ an operating model tailored to local conditions. The places we are talking about differ in their level of economic development, resources and infrastructure. It is not possible to impose a one-size-fits-all model for every village.
All available resources should be made use of. Not all infrastructure needs to be built from scratch. Existing supermarkets can be used as delivery outposts, while some villages already have collection points. Existing services should be standardized as part of a larger network.
Li Hong (New.qq.com): While for many of us express delivery has become an essential part of daily life, the inconvenience, high costs and low profit margin of sending and receiving packages in rural areas have impeded the entry of modern courier services into villages. The problem of the last kilometer remains unsolved, and has prevented many rural consumers from shopping online, as well as farmers from selling their products on the Internet.
The vast rural areas are home to a large proportion of the population, and if courier services are unable to reach them, the sector has a long way to go. Local governments should offer subsidies to help companies overcome the obstacles while the businesses must sacrifice short-term profit for long-term interests.
Companies, in particular, should look further into the future. Delivering parcels in rural areas takes longer than in the cities, which undoubtedly increases the costs for these businesses. We cannot expect them to give up profit for nothing in exchange. However, in the long run, those willing to tap into the vast rural market may make a lot of money once the network is fully developed.
If villagers want to expedite the convenience of 21st-century delivery services, they can also contribute to the development of the industry. They can choose a local site to serve as a collection point, both for sending and receiving parcels. They can also find employment as local deliverymen.
For courier services to successfully operate in villages, everyone needs to contribute their ideas and effort.
Zou Xuxin (People's Daily): Thanks to the rapid development of the Internet, e-commerce is now an effective way to lift people out of poverty. But e-commerce and express delivery are interdependent. The scattered distribution of houses, bad roads and poor infrastructure in the countryside are preventing a successful synthesis of the two. Where these services are willing to deliver to rural addresses, they do so only every week or two at best. Rural residents thus find it hard to order things and sell their agricultural products to cities online. While many are good at marketing their wares via live-streaming platforms, the lack of logistics for e-commerce is dampening their ambition of becoming rich.
The way out is for local governments to offer good policies and financial support. Hi-tech means should also be employed, including the use of drones. Since SPB is encouraging courier services to enter rural areas, all parties should make an effort to seize this opportunity for development.
Zhang Lianzhou (Economic Daily): Rural dwellers are important online shoppers, contributing significantly to the thriving e-commerce industry in China. However, the difficulty couriers face reaching these villages not only hinders the delivery business' development, but makes online shopping for villagers more inconvenient than their urban counterparts.
If express delivery services covered the vast rural areas, this improvement in logistics would also boost rural consumption and encourage farmers to start their own businesses. This, in turn, may convince migrant workers, college graduates and military veterans to return to their hometowns.
For now, efforts to promote courier services and e-commerce in rural areas are hampered by a lack of professionals, underdeveloped infrastructure, a weak industrial base and high costs.
Given this reality, it is important for local governments to offer more support to online shops and delivery companies, so that they can more easily do business in villages. Companies need to establish logistic models fit for rural areas, which might differ dramatically from the ones they currently use in cities.
Once an express delivery network is established, the rural population will be able to purchase and sell online more conveniently. Express delivery services in rural areas can not only make people's life more convenient, but also become a force to boost regional economic growth.
Copyedited by Laurence Coulton