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Travel To The City The Dollar Store Built

Picture your favorite dollar store stocked with shelves upon shelves of very inexpensive goods. There might be holiday themed decorations, or colorful hair clips and plastic costume jewelry or even a funny hat or two. You never know what you might find at your local dollar store; or even the next store one down the street. This is a dollar store nation, as are most of the other countries in the modern world. And where there is a demand for cheap goods, you will find a competitive market. Did you know that you could take a vacation there?

There are about 30,000 dollar stores located in the United States alone. That means you will find more dollar stores per square mile than even gas stations. Think about it. How often do you and your family go to the Dollar Store up the street? It’s like the grocery store for bare essentials and party favors. It’s a booming industry and it has nowhere to go but up.

But how does the “cheap goods” industry work? What are the economics behind it? If you are like most Americans, you assume that the cheap goods come from some factory in China. And you’d be right about the China part, but not much else. You see, ALL of China works together to make these dollar store items. Chinese towns and communities are the reason dollar store shelves are able to stay full with random cheap crap that will be sold because they are so dirt-cheap! How could you resist? There is also a city that was built almost overnight, funded by the goods sold in dollar stores. Imagine traveling to a place where you literally will not be able to find a better deal anywhere else!

I’m always on the look out for the lowest price for everything. Random, otherwise useless, knick-knacks and toys are my bread and butter when it comes to being crafty or upcycling. I just love the satisfaction of coming home with a big shopping haul and only having spent $20-$40. As far as I’m concerned, the DG (Dollar General) is the place to be! It may be that way for you too, or it may not. But the reality is, you yourself have probably been to the dollar store more than a handful of times. And I’m willing to bet it’s the same case for every functional person you’ve ever met. But where does it all come from? How did the United States and much of the world become “Dollar Store Nations?”

Let me introduce you to a little documentary that opened my eyes and ears to this hidden world behind all the cheap plastic and paper. A world and process that I used to take for granted until I learned the fascinating truth. The movie is called Bulkland and you can rent it on Youtube for $2.99. After watching this movie, I have found the ultimate dollar store and it may be off the beaten track, but who knows? If you love shopping for a bargain, this city in China could be the most memorable trip of your life!

Bulkland is a documentary about Yiwu or “The City that The Dollar Store Built”. Remember when I told you that all of China works together to make the bulk of these dollar store hauls? Yiwu is a crazy, yet strangely organized, little metropolis of a place that is growing faster than the infrastructure can even keep up with it. Bulkland teaches you that “the way of the dollar store” is a delicate and highly competitive dance. I cannot stress enough how competitive this city is. Yiwu is a central hub in China where niche goods are shipped from little towns all over China.

What I mean by niche goods is that most of the residents of a small town has will focus on hand making a single item or a related group of items in bulk to then be sold to a retailer in Yiwu. For example, one town may make toy broomsticks for Halloween. Another town will focus on earrings and necklaces, and still yet another will make wooden puzzle boxes.

These towns rely on their hard and fast working hands to produce these goods with the hopes of making at least $8 a day. One townswoman from the documentary said that she could make 2000 pairs of faux pearl earrings a day and each pair sold for .04¢.... I know. That wage is beyond insane according to our American standards and ideologies. It made me uncomfortable to learn this. But at the same time, it is wrong and almost insulting to feel pity for this woman. Because although everyday she works her fingers numb, she is able to provide for her family and make the best of a life where the alternative is utter poverty and destitution. She has pride because she is determined to work hard so that she can make a life for her family. This is the case for most of these small towns which are the makeshift suburbs of Yiwu. This is the start of the dance for some form of economic independence. Years of hard work can lead to brighter futures for everyone involved. It’s a slow rise, but it is rising all the same. And there is pride in that knowledge.

The next “link” in the chain are the retailers stationed in Yiwu. Retailers are usually setup in small shops inside the largest wholesale marketplace in the world, The Futian Market. It’s really like the ocean; there are always bigger fish to eat the smaller ones. But in this case, everyone is benefiting a little bit, financially anyways. Futian Market retailers have a lot of volume coming in and out of their little shops when bigger, international retailers flock to the market everyday looking for the best and cheapest deal for their commercial markets. With over 1.7 million different types of items available, you’ll be hard-pressed not to find what you are looking for. There are over 70,000 stalls and 210,000 small and medium sized shops within the market and there are about as many people who shop in the market every day! The whole market is basically a city within a city, taking up over 4.7 million square meters.

There are also many establishments within the city limits of Yiwu that will hire people everyday to work producing even more cheap goods. The wages in these establishments are dicey because Yiwu is such a competitive place. The job postings are like an endless collage along the city walls. Hundreds of men and women stand before these postings. They are looking for that one secure job that won’t screw them over. A jackpot job would be one that provides free lodging and food, along with a decent wage because the cost of living in Yiwu is really high. And that is because there is simply not enough housing to support the growing population.

Room and board is difficult to afford on cutthroat wages. Migrant workers go through the daily struggles of trying to make a living. At least there is also a vibrant nightlife to help relieve the stress the days. Nightclubs offer colorful and upbeat entertainment for the masses. People from other countries are interested in doing work for this nightlight crowd and can make a killing each night just for being an entertainer. For example, a young blonde woman from Belarus does very well for herself in Yiwu entertaining workers and businesspeople from all over the world. The job has its ups and downs, but she is otherwise very happy with her life in Yiwu. I think they featured this young woman in the documentary to show the contrast in the subcultures of Yiwu. They are not exactly fair, but such is life in Yiwu. It’s a daily struggle. But it’s a struggle many Chinese people of Yiwu and its surrounding towns will take compared to how life used to be in China. Suffice it to say, there was a dark time in Chinese history and people have learned to live like survivalists and count any economic and social improvements as blessings.

According to Bulkland, Yiwu is kind of falling in on itself in many ways, almost imploding like a black hole. I briefly mentioned the problem with the infrastructure in Yiwu. It looks as though one day soon Yiwu will no longer be a “Bulkland”. So travel there while you can! But even so, as long as consumers around the world are interested in buying cheap goods, there will always be a “bulkland” somewhere to meet that demand. So don’t stop! Keep shopping at the dollar stores in your community. Because now you know that you are doing a little something to help someone else in the world get a leg up to a better future. / Issue 195 - June 2018
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