Life has become easier for Pan Caijuan since November, when an express delivery service network expanded to her village.
As the owner of a family hotel in Luci village, Tonglu county in East China’s Zhejiang province, one of Pan’s daily routines is to do the shopping for her customers. She is heavily dependent on online stores because they are cheaper and offer more choice.
Before the express delivery outlet opened in the village, she had to drive to the local township to pick up her purchases. The round trip usually took about half an hour.
Now, though, she walks to collect the shopping, which she said is “much more convenient” as it usually only takes a few minutes.
“I buy most of the daily commodities for my family and customers from online stores. After placing an order, it usually takes two to three days to receive the packages,” she said.
Pan is one of many countryside dwellers to have benefited from the boom in the rural delivery network.
Since 2014, China has carried out a campaign to boost deliveries in rural areas. All county-level regions and 98 percent of towns now have access to express delivery services. However, the “last mile”, from townships to villages, is difficult to cover.
Last year, the State Post Bureau launched a three-year campaign to expand the network to a deeper grassroots level, sending parcels to villages. The campaign has borne fruit. About 30 percent of the 83.3 billion parcels sent in China last year were delivered to rural areas.
The figure has maintained steady growth this year. During the first half, 20 billion parcels were delivered to rural areas, a year-on-year rise of 30 percent, accounting for one-third of all parcels handled nationally between January and June.
Tonglu is one of the pioneers in the drive to complete the network. By June, all 181 administrative villages in the county had access to express delivery services.
Dubbed “the home of the private express delivery industry”, four giant service providers－ZTO, YTO, STO and Yunda－started in Tonglu. The founders are all Tonglu natives.
Although the county was part of the foundation to expand the rural express delivery network, the goal of reaching every village is not easy.
Villages are scattered across a vast area, raising delivery costs. In such a market-driven industry, the lack of profit means express delivery companies are reluctant to expand services in rural areas.
Tonglu’s way of solving the puzzle was to invite the government into the game.
According to the county’s postal authority, a company initiated by the local government and partnered with express delivery outfits was set up to address the “last mile” problem.
Parcels from different express delivery companies are sent to transfer hubs in towns, then couriers hired by the new enterprise deliver them to villages.
Wang Wenke, an official with the Tonglu Post Office, said the system avoids repeat trips for deliveries and lowers costs.
The express delivery outlet in Luci is located in the local government service hall. Packages are organized and placed on a shelf in an orderly fashion.
Hong Ya, a village government employee, works as a part-time staff member, helping villagers collect and send parcels.
“It is not always busy at the post, and we have a regular routine to receive and send parcels,” Hong said, adding that she can spare the time to take the job.
She receives an extra 400 to 500 yuan ($62 to $77) a month, which saves hiring a full-time employee.
To further reduce outlay, express delivery outlets in villages are set up in premises such as grocery stores and government buildings.
The network in Luci has improved since June, when the express delivery outlet in the village started collecting parcels.
For Qiu Lei, manager of a small luxury hotel in a valley near the village, the system makes it more convenient to send homemade agricultural goods to clients.
“Some customers like our homemade food, such as wine and pickled baby bamboo. Some prefer to leave large pieces of luggage or parcels at the store and ask the staff members to send them home. I can send packages from the outlet in the village, which is more convenient,” the 25-year-old said.
He added that some clients also like to send items, such as wine, to the hotel prior to their arrival.
As rooms at the establishment cost 1,500 to 2,000 yuan a night, Qiu needs to buy high-quality commodities, usually costly brands. He also orders handicraft art products, such as gift-wrapping boxes, to create cozy, luxurious and unique conditions for guests.
None of the products is available at brick-and-mortar shops in the village or even the county. Qiu makes the purchases at online stores and receives them via the rural delivery system.
In June, a pilot program was undertaken to deliver packages via drones. During the trial, a small number of packages were delivered to Qiu’s hotel.
He said it was even more convenient to receive the packages at the front door.
However, he conceded that drone delivery of parcels is still at an early stage, and there are some limitations, such as costs. Moreover, larger packages cannot be delivered by drone.
Still, he will keep an eye on the initiative’s progress and is looking forward to seeing parcels delivered to his door.