Monday, October 22, 2012

Reality bites

There's a xiaomaibu (a tiny convenience store) beside the entrance to my block in the north-west corner of a typical Beijing apartment complex.

This is a handy reference point for guiding visitors towards the (otherwise unmarked) door to my staircase. It was also a potentially valuable - invaluable! - party resource, since it was the only place anywhere nearby which sold bags of ice.

But it closed down a week or so ago. Particularly unfortunate timing for me, since I was just about to throw a party, and had cited the store as a landmark in the directions given to my guests. Oh well.

Such 'mom & pop' businesses are one of the most charming - and useful - features of life in China. But one wonders how long they can survive, given the rapid advance of modern commerce here (there are now 5 or 6 chain convenience stores out on the street within a few hundred yards of my building). But it's not just the competition from leaner chain stores that threatens these little independent operators; many of them seem quixotically determined to fail as businesses.

The recently demised store in my building, for example, was almost never seen to have a customer. Yet I gather it has been soldiering on for about 4 years. The reason it almost never had a customer was that it never appeared to be open. It actually was open most of the time (unlike the equally doomed store in my last apartment complex, whose owners couldn't be bothered to keep any sort of regular hours of business, and would often appear to stay closed for days at a time). It was just that the lady who ran it was so concerned about the cost of electricity that she turned the lights off if there was no-one in. (I never checked, but it wouldn't at all surprise me if she turned the refrigerators and freezers off as well. That is a fairly common practice here. Electricity isn't all that expensive; but penny-pinching frugality seems to be a national vice.)

Leaving on one light, near the door, or having an encouraging 'Yes, we are open' sign outside the door might have helped her business. But she never had any customers because her shop always looked closed.

I am quite glad to see this reassuring evidence that market realities do - sometimes - prevail in China. But it is an isolated and rather untypical example. There are scores of perversely, self-destructively inept businesspeople here who somehow keep their doomed enterprises running for years on end. There seems to be a mad optimism in so many people here, a belief that a business - any business - will prove to be wildly profitable eventually. If you build it, they will come seems to be the hopeful entrepreneur's self-encouraging mantra. Alas, there's rarely any thought of what to build, or why - or how to advertise it. Just build something - and wait to become RICH. That's how people approach business in this country. It would be hilarious if it weren't so tragic.

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