A clerk is filling a customer’s glass in Dafang
“I know the world is changing fast,” this is probably one of the best pieces of lyrics to describe this 38-year-old department store named Dafang in Beijing.
In these 38 years, Dafang has enjoyed the dividend brought by the reform and opening up movement in the early 80s, and also experienced the corporate restructure period that had the staff of 29 at Dafang betting on the survival of the store with their own money. But it seems social and economic changes that have been taking place are pushing this traditional store to its end.
Other traditional department stores in town have been closing down gradually. Despite that, the staff of over 20 old salespersons at their 50s and 60s are still holding on to the store. Faced with rapid changes, they are also trying to find a way out for breakthroughs, instead of accepting the reality and waiting for the end. So regardless of what would be the end of Dafang, the stories of the salespersons of its generation are admirable and worth recording. In this 58th issue of Photo Gallery, we are photographing the last traditional department store in the city of Beijing, and the people that are still running it.
Dafang department store was founded in 1979 and it’s already 38 years old, being one of the very few traditional stores in Beijing. Dafang department store was originally a state-run store. It later underwent the reform of the joint-stock system in late 2000. Each of the 29 employees of Dafang at that time poured in ￥17,000 and completed the reform. After the reform process, all of them became the store’s shareholders and continued to run Dafang at the original site located at Qianmen.
Covering an area of over 100 square meters, Dafang’s decoration and layout remain its design and style in the 80s. In the store, there are knit section, fabric section, cosmetic section and grocery section etc., which have been there from its very establishment in the 80s. Starting from the decade of reform and opening up, Dafang has been focusing on the sales of imported clothes, domestic cosmetics, and life necessities. When the life quality of Chinese people just started to improve, Dafang used to be a popular place for fashion chasers in Beijing.
At Dafang’s office, the department store’s regulations and rules memo and the shift schedule for the Spring Festival for 2016/2017 are stacked under the glass table. Dafang opens for all year round except for official major events like the military parade on September 3rd etc. Even during the Spring Festival, the store keeps running, as it merely delays the opening time to 11 am. Under normal occasions, the store opens at 8:30 am and closes at 7:00 pm. Most of the 29 salespersons that later became shareholders for the restructure are still working at Dafang with only a few of them retired for physical reasons. Now, these old salespersons are at their 50s and 60s.
In 2000, China was undergoing corporate restructuring. Dafang’s staff had to make a decision: Hold on to the store, or exit from it. If they chose to just leave Dafang, they would receive a compensation, but that also means they would have to leave the post, in which they had worked for many years. If they decided not to leave, then they would stick together and face the uncertainties of the future. “Each one of us has a passion for what we are doing. We have been doing this since a very young age,” Xue Hong, the general manager of Dafang told TMTPost. After a group meeting, the 29 employees decided to stick with Dafang as the restructure progressed. Dafang now holds a shareholder meeting once every six months after the restructure. When you open the memo of the shareholder meeting on May 28th, 2004, you will see that everyone had commented on the issue. “After the restructure, the company will be ours.” “My spouse drives a taxi, and his company also adopts the joint-stock system. So the manager is the boss. Nobody cares about my spouse. And there is nobody that can take care of this. If who has a solution to this problem, then tell us.” “The company had overcome the hardship. We should stick together and brainstorm for ideas, together.”
On June 19th, 2017 at Dafang’s office. On the black board it reads “Develop the economy and ensure supply,” a guidance brought forth by the communist party during the Anti-Japanese War. In 2003, Dafang encountered issues after the restructure. The store was blocked entirely by roadblocks from the metro line(from Beijing Station to Beijing West Station) construction project. There wasn’t any customer coming in. Even frequent shoppers of Dafang started to think Dafang had closed down. In response to this issue, the staff agreed on a “going out” strategy. The staff took the merchandise from their sections to sell at government departments, hospitals, and even at their home. They even loaded merchandise to a trolley and started to sell them in front of the August First Film Studio. For six months, not a single customer walked into Dafang, but Dafang survived because of the staff’s efforts.
Although the business wasn’t going smoothly for Dafang, the staff who have been working here for around 30 years are still doing their job with a sense of passion. “Hi! What can I do you for?” “Welcome to Dafang again!” Zhong Xuan, group leader of the cosmetics section was greeting her regular customers. She poured some warm water for her customer when she noticed the customer’s cup was empty. Zhong Xuan joined Dafang in 1995. She knows about every product she is selling. We noticed that she could provide convincing solutions and recommendations for her customers’ requests and inquiries like an experienced doctor.
Zhong Xuan was treating a long-time customer who had come all the way from Tongzhou, which was a two-hour metro ride, to buy a hair conditioner that’s less than 20 yuan. “I have gotten used to using this product, and only Dafang sell it,” this long-time customer started to shop at Dafang at a very young age. “We know the people here well. And they do have quality products. I feel comfortable shopping here.”
A customer came to Dafang for Yumeijing’s products. Yumeijing is a Chinese skin care brand famous for its products for kids. When the customer was about to buy a ￥20 large bottled product, Zhong began to explain to the customer the use of the product and its target group. When Zhong learned the customer was buying it for a little baby, she immediately suggested the customer buy small packs that's being sold at ￥1.5 instead of the large one. “Small packs have the least additive and therefore do less harm to kids’ skin,” she said. Zhong would ask every customer of her about who they are buying the products for and the use case etc. and give out purchase advice accordingly. “When you buy something, the most expensive ones aren’t always the most suitable ones. And you shouldn’t buy too much at a time. You should be something suitable, and the quantity should be suitable,” Zhong said, believing that only when they are caring for their customers’ interests, will the customers come back to shop again.
The cosmetics section was full of domestic products, and this makes Zhong Xuan very proud. Dafang offers its customers the best bargains. “We are going to the small profits but quick turnover. We sell them at the lowest price for everyone. This is a matter of trust,” she said, commenting that this would make regular customers more comfortable when shopping here. “If somebody bargains for the products he or she wants to buy and get a better deal, then it’s unfair for the next customers.”
Wang Qing has been working at Dafang for 29 years. To her, Dafeng is not just a work place, but an emotional bound. Her sense of belonging comes from the interaction with her customers. At one time, a female customer called Dafang to ask the staff if they could deliver large cotton pants to her house because it was convenient for her due to physical reasons. The task was given to Wang Qing, who went to the provided address and delivery the pants to the customer. “It was one of those apartments for old people. She was in a wheelchair and lived by herself. Her kids were all in America,” Wang recalled. She helped the customer put the pants on and left. The customer called Dafang back again the next day, saying that the pants didn’t really fit and asking them if they could bring a larger one to change it. Wang then went back to the customer’s apartment again. “She was surprised that we would actually bring a replacement to her for free and help her put the pants on. She was moved. And she kept holding my hands and didn’t want me to leave,” Wang told TMTPost. This customer sent Wang Qing a book that includes her personal life story, with a thankyou note.
On the shelf stood some traditional enamel basins and spittoons, which are now very hard to find in the market now. Dafang connects with over ten suppliers that provide similar products, with whom the department store has over 20 years of partnership. But as the market gradually changes, these suppliers have also gone through restructuring and slowly exits from these markets, dropping the production of these outdated products. But for Dafang, these old products are one of the mean elements that attract customers as they still have a certain market. To ensure the supply, Dafang keeps close contact with the suppliers.
On August 23rd, Xia Qian from Dafang’s daily grocery section was picking products for the customers. The daily grocery section has several hundreds of products ranging from buttons, sewing machine leather belts, elastic belts, traditional mirrors, cattail leaf fans, small toys, needles, and strings.
Xia Qian showed TMTPost the popular items at her section: double-edged fine-toothed comb, tongue scrapers etc. These items, which are quite rare to see today, were once necessities in life.
The shoes brushes and bottle brushes are also very popular items, especially the brushes for bottles that come in three sizes. Large size brushes can be used to for thermos bottles while the small size brushes are for feeders.
One time, a customer came to Dafang to buy a thermos bottle liner. However, the supplier was production such products anymore and there was any product in the inventory. The customer who came was already very cold, and it’s not easy for him to move around. Xia recalled that she had seen thermos bottle liner before around her house and proposed to the customer that she would buy one for him. After acquiring the bottle liner, the old customer expressed that he wanted to get a few more because the quality of the product was really good. He asked Xia to take him to the store that was selling liners. Xia said yes, and take him to that store. “It’s quite a trip for him to come shop at Dafang. If he couldn’t get what he needed, he would have to go somewhere else to check. It’s troublesome. And I happened to know where he could get them. So I just did him a favor. It felt good,” Xia told TMTPost, saying that solving customers’ issues brings her joy.
On June 20th, 2017, Liu Huirong from Dafang’s fabric section was sorting out some blanket sheets for the customer. The sheets were for a wedding. “The red one is for the groom and the green one is for the bride. They have patterns of the dragon, phoenix, and peony on them. Usually, people buy a pair. You know, the old generation likes it.”
Liu Huirong was one of “school graduates” in 1977, who had later served in the labor team for two years. To date, she has worked at Dafang for over 30 years. “Class head, you are still doing the same job?” Every time a school folk asked her about her job now, she still feels satisfied. “I feel like my feet are on the ground. I don’t have any stress. I feel peace.” Liu is in her 60s now. She hasn’t given much thought to Dafang’s future. When she is off duty, she likes to go out on a trip with her families, or dance a bit. “I want to stay healthy and not bring troubles to my kids,” she said.
Making blankets is Liu’s main job, which she has been doing for two decades. There isn’t enough staff doing this job because of the production requirements. In this case, it usually takes one to two months to make one set. The handmade blanket set is quite popular among customers. Old residents from Chongwen gate and even Tongzhou all know about the blankets here. As a matter of fact, if you made an order now you would have to wait for two months to get them.
On August 23rd, 2017, Dafang’s office. The knit product section’s group leader Li Hong was contacting clothes suppliers through WeChat. For Li Hong, customers’ trust is what is keeping Li Hong at Dafang. Seeing customers who came all the way from Tongzhou to shop at Dafang gives Li Hong a sense of achievement. “Our long time customers want us to last. There aren’t many stores like ours around nowadays and it’s not convenient for them,” she said.
A customer approached Li Hong, wanting to order 30 customized extra-large underwear garments for a family member ill in bed. Li Hong asked the customer to bring an underpants and shirt as a reference since that it’s not convenient for that family member to come over and got measurements. Once the color and size were decided, Li Hong contacted a long-time supplier whom she has been working with for over 30 years. The supplier would then finish making the order quickly. Under normal circumstances, Dafang would deliver the products to customers that aren’t able to get the products themselves without charging extra.
The knit product section’s Guo Hong is 65 years old now. Being the oldest employee at Dafang, Guo started to work at Dafang at the age of 33. Guo recalled that the most popular product at Dafang had been jeans back in the 80s. At that time, the counters were all swarmed by customers. “People were fighting to buy jeans. It was extremely crowded in the store,” Guo had experienced the good old times when Dafang was very popular among consumers. Even though Dafang is in a decline now, she hasn’t given much thought to whether Dafang would last. “As long as I still care about the customers and do my job well, that’s enough for me. We don’t have control over other things,” she concluded.
Dafang’s general manager Xue Hong was sorting out the products on the shelves. Besides doing some management work, Xue Hong also actively seeks a possible way out. They have collaborated with e-commerce platforms before as a supplier. And Dafang is still actively looking for possible partners. “Before the restructure, former managers and staff had brought glorious time to Dafang. We can’t be the ones that let Dafang die,” the manager said. This old woman who had worked for a labor team in the wild for nine years was still radiant with persistence and humbleness. The staff at Dafang would not quit trying to find ways to keep Dafang alive, she said.
At Dafang’s check-out counter. Mobile payment method such as WeChat and Alipay are still not available at Dafang as the store only accepts cash. TMTPost observed that no customer at Dafang had asked if they could use WeChat or Alipay or not.
The abacus, inkpad and wet sponge still lie on the counter. For the staff at Dafang, using a calculator is not as efficient as using their good old abacus.
A customer left a thankyou note for the staff at Dafang. “What are the opportunities for Dafang？ Can Dafang last? What are the possible solutions?” These are the questions that Xue Hong has been asking herself in mind. “Even Jack Ma is starting to open up brick-and-mortar stores. There are still many people who recognize physical stores,” Xue Hong said, believing that despite being physical or virtual, the only way to make such business work is to care for the customers truly. “We are still holding on to Dafang despite our age and energy. We are still looking for a possible way out for Dafang. We live in the same world. How come others can survive and we can’t? We can sure make this work.”
TMTPost Photo Gallery
Special column of TMTPost
Aiming to record individuals and entrepreneurs in the Internet industry
Photos don’t lie, but they don’ tell the whole truth
Photos are free, but also full of traps
This is an Internet age, and we want you to discover stories with us online
(Like our Facebook page and follow us now on Twitter @tmtpostenglish, on Medium @TMTpost, on Instagram @tmtpost_english and on AppleNews@TMTpost)
The article is published with authorization from the author @Flybutchery, please note source and hyperlink when reproduce.
Translated by Garrett Lee (Senior Translator at PAGE TO PAGE), working for TMTpost.