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    Power Banks: How Businesses Are Leading the Charge

    Stores, cafés, bars, and salons in Shanghai’s popular Wukang Road share the benefits and downsides of hosting docking stations for shared power banks.
    Dec 20, 2023#business#Shanghai

    For those who rely on a mobile phone for daily life, few experiences are as scary as seeing their battery edge towards 0% while they’re out and about. Fortunately, shared power banks — available for rent for a few yuan an hour — have become ubiquitous in China, available in all manner of businesses.

    Nowhere is this more evident than in Shanghai’s Wukang Road, one of the most popular places in the city for tourists and online influencers.

    Almost every bistro and café provides power banks, often slotted into a square, brightly colored docking station that takes pride of place near the counter and in an equally prominent spot.

    Demand for these devices is massive, according to iiMedia Research. The data intelligence company estimates that more than 50% of customers in restaurants, bars, dessert shops, and other kinds of eateries are likely to use a power bank while they enjoy a bite or a beverage. They just scan the QR code using WeChat or AliPay, the most common payment apps, and away they go!

    But what happens when this “new emergency service” clashes with the upmarket sensibilities of a place like Wukang Road?

    Among the more fashion-conscious businesses, some only allow the installation of docking stations as long as the vendor agrees to tailor them to their interior decoration. One restaurant, for example, insisted that its units be wrapped in black vinyl. Many of the more upscale clothing stores, where customers can typically spend upwards of 1,000 yuan ($140) at a time, won’t allow them at all, as the extra income these power banks can generate is not nearly as important as maintaining their boutique aesthetic.

    Fruit stores, hardware stores, and repair shops offer no such resistance, however. Smaller businesses understand they need to diversify to survive, so are usually more receptive to installing docking stations.

    According to Shanghai Survey, a government-run social media account, the cost per hour of renting a power bank in the city ranges from 3 yuan to as much as 7 yuan in popular scenic spots and business districts.

    Businesses usually make a few hundred yuan a month from hosting power bank docking stations. However, the boss of a store selling auto parts and tires at the intersection of two high-traffic roads, Anfu Road and Wukang Road, says he’s been earning up to 4,000 yuan a month.

    Rather than take a percentage for each rental, he negotiated a fixed monthly payment. “I told the salesman, ‘Give me 4,000 yuan a month and you can install them.’ If he hadn’t agreed, I’d have just talked to another brand,” he says. The salesman was unsure so proposed a trial, the results of which led to a long-term cooperation deal.

    The section of Anfu Road near Wukang Road is highly competitive in terms of the power bank business; you only need to walk a few steps in any direction to find a stack of docking stations.

    In October, a bespoke shoemaker working out of an apartment building finally agreed to install docking stations after turning down multiple vendors, but only after one sales representative was able to find an out-of-the-way placement. The units are lodged in a window, on their side.

    A small, hole-in-the-wall bar selling craft beer on Shanghai’s Wulumuqi Middle Road makes a little over 1,000 yuan a month from its power banks, much to the delight of the owner; he’d only expected it to cover his electricity bill, which is far less than that.

    However, a fruit store on Wulumuqi Road had a much different experience — four days after installing its power banks, not one customer had rented one. Perhaps the bright-yellow docking station blended in too well next to the bananas.

    Anecdotal evidence suggests that the best location for power bank docking stations is on the street outside a store, ideally allowing customers to borrow and return them even outside business hours, thereby creating a passive income stream. In the event of a unit being stolen, the vendor will cover any losses, according to a sales representative.

    Shanghai businesses share their experiences:

    Kangxing Bicycle Repair Shop, 398 Wukang Road

    The first time a sales representative from a power bank vendor visited this store in 2020, its owner, Wang, couldn’t understand why anyone would want to rent one — surely everyone owned a power bank? Renting seemed expensive, and if someone forgot to return it, they would quickly rack up a large bill. The representative explained that not everyone carries a power bank with them, and they sometimes need to charge their phone. Plus, the high number of people in the area meant there would definitely be a market for them.

    For the past 25 years, Wang’s shop has been located across from Wukang Mansion, a picturesque building that attracts many photographers. He’s seen Wukang Road transform from a quiet street to a major tourist spot. His tiny shop is packed full of scooters, helmets, batteries, tires, and tools, but he also stocks umbrellas, something he started doing to cater for the uptick in visitors from out of town. “They’re 15 yuan each — everyone needs an umbrella when it rains,” Wang says. “People come out to enjoy themselves, so they don’t mind spending a few yuan.”

    Despite his skepticism about the business model, Wang agreed to install power banks, largely because he didn’t need to worry about anything except keeping them charged. As there was no room left in his shop, he put up a shelf on one wall.

    At first, when someone wanted to rent a power bank, they would ask what time the shop closes. When he told them 9 p.m., Wang says, he could see their relief. “At that time, there were very few places with them, and if you closed early, people wouldn’t dare borrow one in case they were unable to return it,” he adds.

    Sure enough, the power banks proved popular with passers-by. Just like the sales representative said, they are hot property during China’s traditional vacation periods. Later, Wang started receiving extra power banks before each holiday, so that he could refill the docking stations when they were empty.

    “I thought the power bank company would go bust pretty quickly. I never expected that in the first month I’d receive a few dozen yuan. I was pretty happy,” Wang says. “Now I get 300 to 400 yuan a month on average, and more than 500 yuan in good months. I don’t have to worry about anything; I just wait to hear the ping on my phone when the money arrives in my account.”

    Wukang Food Store, 435 Wukang Road

    The power banks in Wukang Food Store are not easy to spot — in fact, you can only see them from a certain angle. Hu, the store manager, installed the devices about five years ago. He’d seen them elsewhere but didn’t know how to go about getting them. “But you just need to wait for them to come find you,” he says. Fortunately, Wukang Road has become extremely popular, otherwise he might still be waiting.

    The small store was converted from a state-run grain and oil store, and its customers are mostly elderly residents. It has the feeling of an old general store found in Shanghai’s historic alleyways, not the kind of place you would expect to find power banks.

    Wukang Food Store is in the former garage of Wukang Mansion, which was converted into housing in the 1950s. The concave shape of the store means it’s easy to miss when walking past. Hu said that his rent is “just 15,000 yuan” while the café under renovation opposite “pays 70,000 to 80,000 yuan.”

    One of the biggest changes to Wukang Road in recent years has been the growing number of coffee shops. “Look, the other side of the road is full of cafés,” Hu says. “When you have a coffee there, you use your cell phone. Nowadays, everyone’s addicted to their phone. So, you play on your phone and then your battery gets low and you need to borrow a power bank.”

    However, as more places on the road have installed power banks, the money that businesses make has dropped. Hu says the docking stations at the entrance to his store, which are provided by three different vendors, can earn up to 400 to 500 yuan a month at peak times, although usually it’s just over 100 yuan.

    Plusone Café, 286 Wukang Road

    Plusone is a three-story shop selling coffee and dessert with an eye-catching yellow docking station supplied by Meituan — an online platform for power banks, food delivery, and shared bicycles — beside its counter. “The boss doesn’t really care about them,” a barista says. “But Meituan’s color scheme happens to match our decoration, so we only use that vendor.”

    Sock Store, 232 Wukang Road

    The power banks here are placed on the counter by the door, easily visible to anyone turning from Fuxing West Road into Wukang Road. A customer in the process of returning one she had borrowed nearby says, “It’s not working well, so it’s better I return it sooner rather than later.” She’s not wrong. At 3 yuan for 30 minutes, if it doesn’t work, you need to cut your losses.

    “Shared power banks make everyone’s life more convenient,” says the store’s owner. He adds that he used to fix bikes but switched to selling socks during the most recent round of upgrades to Wukang Road. Socks here sell for 10 yuan a pair.

    Despite the influx of tourists, business is still difficult, he says. “Things are up and down. It’s hard to run a physical store.” Like many other stores, he has started to stock umbrellas and shared power banks in an effort to diversify.

    Perfetto Cobblers, 115 Wukang Road

    Walking along Hunan Road, the strange placement of some yellow-colored power banks catches the eye. The docking stations are wedged on their side in a window. They belong to a bespoke shoemaker based in a street-level apartment, and he is not a fan. “It’s good for the platform, but the revenue is pretty negligible,” he complains, adding that he might remove them if things don’t pick up soon. “What’s the point for just 200 or 300 yuan a month? Plus, it affects my shop’s ventilation.”

    For stores where customers typically spend over 1,000 yuan, a few hundred yuan isn’t attractive. “The sales representative used to come here all the time, but I just said no.” This year, however, they came to a compromise — the sideways orientation — and he agreed to give it a try.

    Minfeng Auto Parts & Tires, 63 Wukang Road

    Docking stations flank the entrance of this tire store like a pair of security guards. The boss, Wang, proved to be a tough negotiator. Sitting in his store peeling edamame, he explains: “I wouldn’t take a percentage. I told the salesman, ‘Give me 4,000 yuan a month and you can install them.’ If he hadn’t agreed, I’d have just talked to another brand.”

    The salesman was self-employed and worked on commission. At first, he wasn’t sure, Wang says, so he proposed a one-month trial, which eventually led to a deal. After all, the tire shop is in an ideal spot, right at the junction of Wukang Road and Anfu Road. “Still, I really don’t care,” Wang adds. “I can take it or leave it.”

    He opened his tire store 28 years ago and hasn’t renovated it since. Back then, few families owned a car. “It was easier to do business. I had some money, so I drove my scooter around looking for a shopfront,” he says. “It was quiet here, a perfect spot for doing repairs.” The street-facing property cost about 110,000 yuan to buy. Wang also owns the apartment upstairs plus a yard.

    The intersection is busy day and night, but Wang worries that it’s too popular. “It’s not good if there are too many people. It’s not convenient for doing repairs,” he says. However, the upside is that demand for his power banks has soared. “In the evening, food delivery drivers and taxi drivers run low on battery; they all come here to borrow a power bank.”

    Qimei Hairdressers, 257 Anfu Road

    This salon doesn’t earn much from its power banks, although the rental price is among the lowest on the street at 4 yuan an hour. “I make 100 yuan a month at most,” the boss says. Originally, she wanted to return them, but her daughter talked her out of it.

    As Anfu Road has become popular, she says various reporters have come to interview her. At first, she was happy to say a few words, but later it became tiring answering the same questions. She adds that the changes to Anfu Road and the internet have affected everyone.

    No-Name Beer Shop, 270 Wulumuqi Middle Road

    In contrast to the low-profile placement of the power banks at Qimei Hairdressers, at this tiny bar, they are on full display. The shop, which covers just 6 square meters, sells craft beer for around 20 yuan a bottle. Originally a tailor shop, it doesn’t have a door, so everything is sold via a window onto the street, and this is taken up largely by docking stations.

    The bar makes a healthy revenue from power banks, earning more than 1,000 yuan a month, much more than the boss had imagined. “I thought it’d be nice if the two stations could cover the electricity bill, but they actually more than cover it.”

    The boss found that weekends are particularly busy, with all the power banks often being taken before the shop even opens at 4 p.m. Spring and fall are the best times of year. Summer is the quietest time. “Everyone wants to go somewhere that’s air-conditioned on summer evenings,” he says.

    He mentions a particularly creative spot he’d seen for displaying power bank stations on Anfu Road. “There’s an electric scooter parked up the road with two docking stations perched on the back. The scooter charges the power banks — what a creative way to make money.”

    Reported by Jiang Tianya and Gu Zheng.

    A version of this article originally appeared in SHerLife. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

    Translator: David Ball; editors: Xue Ni and Hao Qibao.

    (Header image: Er Hei/SHerLife, reedited by Sixth Tone)