Dollar Store Town: Inside the World’s Biggest Wholesale Market

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Katie Mingle:
Here we are in the 99 Cents Store in West Oakland.

Avery Trufelman:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Roman Mars:
Go into any dollar store in the United States, and you’ll find the same kind of stuff.

Avery Trufelman:
They’ve already got the Christmas stuff out, and like…

Katie Mingle:
Santa stuff everywhere. Little Santa booties that you can put on your baby.

Avery Trufelman:
A little Santa costume that you can put on a wine bottle. (laughs)

Roman Mars:
In U.S. Dollar stores, there are grocery items and cleaning products, and some of them are name brand items, but then there’s this other category of things for sale.

Avery Trufelman:
Little bags of plastic festive gourds, a slotted spoon.

Katie Mingle:
Yeah, everything is like… this doesn’t have a brand name. Where is it… from?

Roman Mars:
Toys and jewelry and knickknacks that seem to have a generic cheapness to them.

Avery Trufelman:
Loofahs.

Katie Mingle:
To very generic looking razors.

Avery Trufelman:
Little fake plants.

Avery Trufelman:
Do I want this chocolate toothpaste?

Katie Mingle:
I don’t think so, but…

Roman Mars:
Dollar stores aren’t just a U.S. Phenomenon. They’re in Australia and the UK. They’re in the Middle East and in Mexico. They’re all over the world. And a lot of that stuff, that generic cheap stuff, that lines the shelves of these stores, comes from one place. A market in China, called the Futian Market.

Chinese Speaker:
[Chinese dialog]

Daniel Whelen:
The Futian Market, where all this stuff comes from, it goes on for miles. For miles and miles of these tiny little stores.

Roman Mars:
That’s documentary filmmaker Daniel Whelen.

Roman Mars:
The Futian Market is about 43 million square feet, or around 10 times the size of the Mall of America.

Daniel Whelen:
You could enter the market and walk around it for days, and never see the same store twice.

Roman Mars:
Daniel and his Co-Producer, Tobias Andersson Akerblom, made a documentary film called Bulkland, about the Futian Market, and the city in China where it’s located. Yiwu.

Daniel Whelen:
There’s about two million people here completely dedicated to making this stuff for us. But, no one’s ever heard of it.

Roman Mars:
The city of Yiwu is about 200 hundred miles south west of Shanghai.

Daniel Whelen:
It’s a market city so it’s quite vibrant in parts, but it’s not an incredibly livable city, an incredibly lovely, green city. It turned from a sort of bucolic mountain town to what kind of seems a cookie cutter, industrial city now.

Roman Mars:
In the late 1970’s, Communist China began to open itself up to capitalism. It would no longer be illegal to run private businesses in China. The province of Zhejiang, where Yiwu is located, had a history of being a center for trade, and the people there were eager to join the new economy.

Daniel Whelen:
The villagers spent all their life savings on cheap industrial equipment, and started producing items that were really easy to make. Playing cards or Christmas decorations or wooden toys.

Roman Mars:
And soon a market opened up, in the city of Yiwu, to sell these items.

Nigel Crop:
The market is just a street market. People started making Christmas decorations and arts and crafts. More and more people started to come to this market and that’s how it’s grown up.

Roman Mars:
This is Nigel Crop. He’s a British trader who lives and works in Yiwu. He originally came to this city just to have an adventure, and teach English.

Nigel Crop:
So I started teaching at this English training center. I was teaching adults, and they were factory bosses and trading company bosses. Little did they know, I was teaching them English but at the same time, they were teaching me how to do the business here. How it all works.

Nigel Crop:
I used to do day trips to the Futian Market and she’d show me around.

Roman Mars:
The street markets grew and grew, and eventually came to encompass four huge buildings, connected by sky bridges and roads and parking lots.

Daniel Whelen:
And each of the buildings is divided into different products. You’ll have the jewelry building the toy building, the arts and crafts building and the clothing building.

Roman Mars:
Every day thousands of foreign traders visit this massive market in Yiwu. They’re haggling in Chinese, looking for things to buy in bulk that they can sell to dollar stores and other vendors in their home countries.

Chinese Speaker:
[Bargaining in Chinese.]

Daniel Whelen:
Once you get inside it’s a lot different to a normal shopping center or shopping mall. It’s thousands and thousands of market stalls. These market stalls are about… five by five feet.

Daniel Whelen:
So it usually run by one person or two people and they’re sitting in there, surrounded by their products.

Daniel Whelen:
And none of the products are for sale. You can’t go in there and say, “I want one keyring.” You have to go in and say, “I want 1500 keyrings.”

Roman Mars:
That’s exactly the kind of volume Nigel, the British trader who lives in Yiwu, is looking for, when he heads to the market.

Nigel Crop:
We need to find generic animals. Ocean animals are okay. Also gecko, lizard.

Nigel Crop:
We go to the market and the supplier will give us a price. And then we do the ordering. The goods are delivered to my warehouse.

Nigel Crop:
The niche I have is that I’m a Westerner. I speak English, obviously, and I have the Western eye. I know what products are not going to sell, I know the quality expected. It’s quite an important thing, I think.

Wang Xiaoyang (Translator):
At the Futian Market, my business is mostly bulk sales of electronic Santa gifts.

Roman Mars:
This is Wang Xiaoyang. She has a stall at the Futian Market filled with hundreds and hundreds of plastic Santas.

Wang Xiaoyang (Translator):
We started this business in 1992. That’s when my dad started it.

Daniel Whelen:
Seven days a week, she’s in this shop, completely surrounded by Santas. Santas surfing, Santas climbing out of chimneys, Santas riding motorcycles with Ray-Bans on.

Wang Xiaoyang (Translator):
Before we started this business, I never heard of the concept of Christmas. I had no idea what it was.

Wang Xiaoyang (Translator):
To me Santa is a very kind old man, who slides through your chimney on Christmas and brings you gifts and happiness and good fortune.

Wang Xiaoyang (Translator):
Christmas is a holiday for people overseas, but for us Chinese people, we don’t get any time off for it.

Roman Mars:
Wang Xiaoyang and Nigel are just two links in the economic chain that starts in China and ends at your local dollar store. The hub of that economy is certainly the Futian Market in Yiwu, but the whole Zhejiang province is involved. Neighboring towns to Yiwu all have their specialties.

Nigel Crop:
For Halloween we export witch brooms. And there’s one village that will make these brooms. There’s a town that just makes wheelbarrows. You go to a town for toys or wooden puzzles, or Christmas decorations. Each town has its niche.

Roman Mars:
And most of these little toys and trinkets are being produced in small operations. Maybe a family has been able to buy one piece of industrial equipment, and hire a few workers.

Roman Mars:
There’s a scene in Daniels film where some migrant workers are sitting around in someone’s garage, making cheap costume jewelry, by pouring molten metal into a machine that’s setting it in a mold.

Daniel Whelen:
And then they’re filing it down and chucking it into a container. And then later that day, a guy will probably come past and grab that bucket of jewelry and take it to a different part of the town, where someone will put it into packaging. And then the next day, he’ll come back and pick all that up, and take it to the market.

Roman Mars:
And for many people in the province this isn’t even their full time day job. This is just a side business.

Daniel Whelen:
Everyone from the age of, sort of, 22 to 80 or 90, they’ll work in the farm, and then they’ll come back at night, and start making witches brooms.

Nigel Crop:
A bit like a cottage industry back in the Industrial Revolution in England.

Roman Mars:
That’s Nigel Crop again, the British trader who lives in Yiwu.

Nigel Crop:
Where it took Great Britain 200 years, it’s taken China 20, 30 years.

Roman Mars:
And you can see the effects of this super fast growth in Yiwu. The city grew so quickly, that it still hasn’t had time to build basic infrastructure.

Daniel Whelen:
You see entire neighborhoods with no paved roads. Because they just need people to immediately move into these buildings and start making stuff in the basements.

Roman Mars:
A few years after moving to China, Nigel met his wife, Jesse, an Yiwu local.

Nigel Crop:
When I started the trading company she had a booth in the market selling bags. Also she was one of my students.

Roman Mars:
Jesse’s family is one of many in Yiwu to benefit from China’s turn toward a free market economy.

Nigel Crop:
Yeah, she wants me to go and eat something. Upstairs. I can’t go upstairs, I’m doing something. Got any cold beer?

Nigel Crop:
I’ve always felt part of the family. They’ve always accepted me. They’ve always made me feel very welcome. I’ve never felt any different.

Roman Mars:
Nigel’s wife’s great grandparents can remember Yiwu before it opened itself up to capitalism.

Gong Jin Xiang [Translator]:
We’ve lived here since we were born. We built our own house. In the old days it was suffering. It was really terrible.

Roman Mars:
That’s Nigel’s great grandmother-in-law, Gong Jin Xiang.

Gong Jin Xiang [Translator]:
Just mentioning the suffering time, I feel so sad I could cry. Life was so tough that a single sweet potato was divided into pieces for several meals.

Gong Jin Xiang [Translator]:
In the old days there were no cars. Now a lot of people can afford luxurious sedans. I am so comforted by the change.

Roman Mars:
Of course capitalism has also taken its toll on China.

Daniel Whelen:
I think globalization is ruinous when it’s unchecked, like it is in places like Yiwu. You see a landscape almost completely destroyed. The mountains are all dug out, there’s people burning rubbish everywhere, it’s smoggy all the time, and for what?

Daniel Whelen:
And then you see why. It’s people who spent years almost completely malnourished, now being able to sit around with a giant family and all eat and have a lovely time.

Roman Mars:
But now people in China, who have been able to move out of desperate poverty, want more than to just make a living.

Daniel Whelen:
And those people are demanding a better lifestyle.

Gong Jin Xiang [Translator]:
We are at the market every day, every day, every day. It never changes.

Roman Mars:
That’s Wang Xiaoyang again. Her business, selling Santas, has grown substantially since her father first started it in 1992. It’s allowed her family to move into the middle class. But it’s also swallowing up her existence. She’s there seven days a week, from sunup to sundown.

Gong Jin Xiang [Translator]:
Maybe everyone has some regret in their lives. If I got to do it again, I would study harder. Then I would not have to rely on the business that my parents ran for my entire life.

Daniel Whelen:
Like a lot of middle class Chinese people, Wang Xiaoyang wants something more.

Wang Xiaoyang [Translator]:
My dream is to travel all around the world. The first place I want to go is Egypt. This is a place I’ve wanted to go ever since I was a kid.

Daniel Whelen:
She doesn’t want to just sell Santas seven days a week until she’s able to get her daughter to do the same thing, and then continue on forever.

Roman Mars:
For now though Wang Xiaoyang just has to work harder, because costs in China are going up, and her profit margin is getting slimmer.

Wang Xiaoyang [Translator]:
Our costs for workers in China is increasing yearly. Every part of production, starting from the smallest fitting part, to assembly costs. It’s getting more and more expensive.

Roman Mars:
As the cost of labor goes up, people seek out cheaper labor markets.

Daniel Whelen:
Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos. They’re right there. And they’ve got the facilities to do it. They’re ready to take that work. And they are starting to take that work away from places like Yiwu.

Roman Mars:
The Chinese government is also interested in moving the country away from it’s reputation as the world’s factory.

Daniel Whelen:
They don’t want to be where all of our junk comes from. They want to be the next South Korea or Taiwan or Japan, that makes computers and cars and solar panels and things like that.

Roman Mars:
But Yiwu is the city that cheap junk built. Or really only half built. The city grew so fast that basic infrastructure has not caught up to the growth. In the coming years the people of Yiwu will have to find ways to finish building their city. And then new ways to survive as the global economy changes.

Roman Mars:
The world’s dollar stores will continue to be full of plastic Santas and cheap trinkets of all kinds. But soon this stuff may be made in the basements and garages and factories of some other city.

Comments (5)

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  1. Jun

    I love most of episodes made by 99% invisible. But, as a Chinese, I really don’t like this one. It pays too much attention on the dark side of Yiwu. Yiwu is the world‘s largest market for small commodities. It’s growing very fast. The shop owners there are millionaire. They are smart and hard working. Although Chinese government wants to move to high-tech business, it is not necessary to talk about Yiwu in such a pessimistic tone. Yiwu is still gonna be a very important part of Chinese export.

  2. Evan Bontrager

    99PI is missing their soul with stories like this. It was interesting, and as always incredibly presented. But there was nothing of Design. Isn’t Design your thing?

    Angles that would have fit why I have listened to 99PI for years could be:
    – How do you design plastic Santa without living in Santa culture?
    – Do any single family businesses that buy a single piece of production equipment adjust designs to differentiate? Or are they stuck with making whatever their machine produces?
    – How does a city like Yiwu design infrastructure when growth happens faster than the city can plan? You hinted at this twice. Tell us more how a city functions with trash pickup and clean water with limited planning and infrastructure. This could lead into a sequel about how cities decline in population; e.g Cleveland versus Detroit.
    – If the story was all about the physical marketplace, how did it grow from an open marketplace into four connected buildings of this scale. Were the buildings built for the marketplace or did it absorb the buildings? Who owns the buildings? How do they govern with the large number of tenants? Are there any unregistered squatter tenants? So many questions about designing such a large community. Did the community design the organization or does the organization of the marketplace control the community?
    – And of course, what is the need for a physical marketplace in light of Alibaba?

    But alas, I enjoyed the current story but can’t remember a single design centric topic. Please don’t loose your core purpose. Remember the Revolving Door?

  3. I enjoyed this story. It brought back so many memories of my happy hours in just such a market. My markets were 中东 and 远方. You can buy just about anything there. The best part is the food court. You can just stroll and eat 肉夹馍 or 臭豆腐 or 肉串儿. Best memories.

    My wife and I have a dear friend who owns two stores at 远方. She actually has a masters degree in Russian. She would rather be doing something else with her life, but perhaps it is the tightening profit margins referenced in this article which keeps her where she is.

    Though I live in the USA now, I still visit China from time to time and write about it. Here’s one of my recent articles: http://ivannovation.com/blog/8-tips-for-marketing-your-app-in-china/

  4. Ricardo

    Thanks for this episode, it really made me understand where it all comes from. I hope these people won’t be simply ignored as the economy eventually changes. Also, I think Evan Bontrager’s comment is pertinent. There was so much left to explore.

  5. Bryan M

    I just watched an Australian documentary about a group of people who formed an intentional community to live simply, build tiny houses, farm, live communally. Then I listened to this story. My God, the domino effect our consumptive lives have on people and places around the world… Thank you for an eye-opening look at where our junk comes from. It motivates me more to work towards a zero waste life. Just listened to a few interviews about that topic on the podcast Sustainable Mind. Much more positive news! :-0

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