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    On E-commerce Platforms, Young Chinese Turn Savings Into Sport

    In an effort to spend more wisely, young shoppers are scouring for the best possible deals. Social media tips and tags, and e-commerce algorithms are playing key roles in their search.

    Two packs of tissue paper free of charge after using coupons; laundry detergent bought totally free; and hoodies purchased for no more than 20 yuan ($2.78). These are among Zhu Zihan’s biggest successes in her hunt for unbeatable online discounts.

    For the 23-year-old student from the eastern Shandong province, this pursuit is more than just about saving money — it’s almost a sport. Like many young Chinese consumers looking to exercise more caution in spending habits, she now “competes” with friends to see who can bag the best deals on major domestic retail platforms.

    “For me, it sometimes may mean a two-hour journey to beat my friends. It’s all about who can buy it at the cheapest price,” says Zhu. “I do this whenever I have some time to kill.”

    The hunt often begins on Pinduoduo,, and Taobao — all among China’s top e-commerce platforms known for their affordability, particularly for products like skin care, electronic devices, food, and clothing.

    Young savvy shoppers then begin comparing prices across these sites, leveraging discounts, coupons, and special offers to pinpoint the best time to make purchases, down to the exact date and hour.

    The phenomenon has even sparked communities on social media, where sharing tips for bargains is now a genre in its own right. On the lifestyle app Xiaohongshu for instance, the tag haoyangmao — which literally translates to “gathering wool” — refers to discounts and coupons for the best deals, and has garnered more than 5 billion views.

    The tag comprises posts that not only list the average prices of items like body lotions, food, and flowers across various platforms but also guide users on how to access available discounts and identify recommended stores.

    “I started reading such tips to save money. But now it’s more like a challenge,” says Sun Mingxin, a 24-year-old student in Shanghai. With monthly living expenses exceeding 3,000 yuan, Sun prides herself on snagging deals like boxes of Coca-Cola at half the supermarket price.

    “I’d feel like a loser if I bought something at a higher price compared to my roommates,” she says.

    This competitive shopping culture is further fueled by e-commerce search algorithms prioritizing cheaper items, particularly and Pinduoduo, whose sister app Temu has recently gained traction abroad via similarly cutthroat deals.

    “Even if the price is tagged only 0.1 yuan lower, our algorithm will favor the item and automatically push it to the front on the search page, regardless of the store’s qualification,” explains a member of staff at Pinduoduo, requesting anonymity as they are not authorized to speak to the media.

    “This ensures that more affordable options are more visible to consumers, while other platforms may prioritize factors like logistics speed alongside price.”

    On China’s e-commerce platforms, “search weights,” which improve the relevance of product results, determine how products are displayed based on user queries.

    Speaking with Sixth Tone, a Pinduoduo spokesperson explains that the platform considers various factors, including previous purchase history and store performance, to tailor results. “At Pinduoduo, everyone knows that we value lower prices more. It’s the key factor,” the spokesperson said.

    While this algorithm-driven emphasis on low prices makes bargain hunting easier, it also poses challenges for manufacturers: To remain competitive on e-commerce platforms, factories must find ways to lower their production costs without compromising quality.

    Established in 1997, the Puning Zhongqiang Knitting Garments Co., Ltd. in the southern Guangdong province has managed to keep the selling price of their undergarments to under 10 yuan. And at smaller family-run workshops, the ex-factory prices can be less than 3 yuan.

    Jiang Yuyan, the manager of Puning Zhongqiang, attributes their ability to offer such competitive pricing to the low labor and rent costs in Jieyang City, where their strategic positioning within an industrial cluster also helps reduce costs.

    Their flagship product, a pair of underwear retailing at 8.2 yuan, incurs less than 0.8 yuan in labor costs, alongside other expenses like rent, electricity, and tax, still allowing for a healthy gross profit margin of up to 30%.

    To attract manufacturers like Puning Zhongqiang to its platform, Pinduoduo has deployed a specialized team to rural areas, offering hands-on guidance to farmers and factory owners on setting up their online stores on the platform, completely free of charge.

    Highlighting the cost benefits of this approach, the Pinduoduo spokesperson says: “Factories starting their new online shops on other platforms often face significant expenses for branding, advertising, and logistics services, all of which inflate the final price paid by consumers.”

    “On Pinduoduo, however, shop owners are able to bypass these costs, focusing their resources on production and thus contributing to lower retail prices.”

    In 2019, Pinduoduo launched a 10 billion yuan program to cover part of factories’ product costs, thus allowing consumers to purchase goods at significantly reduced prices.

    For instance, a product listed at 100 yuan can be sold to consumers for 50 yuan, with Pinduoduo covering the remaining 50 yuan, ensuring that sellers receive the full amount.

    “The program is now more focused on 3C (computer, communication, and consumer electronics) and agricultural products,” says the spokesperson.

    The aggressive pricing strategies on Pinduoduo have led to an abundance of deals, such as boxes of apples available for under 10 yuan. On social media, some users even criticized the platform for selling rotten produce.

    Admitting that she had experienced something similar, student Sun says, “At least there were several good pieces in the box. It’s still cheaper than buying them directly from the supermarket.”

    Editor: Apurva.

    (Header image: VCG)