Shang­hai en­tre­pre­neur amasses a se­cret army of crit­ics

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - By XU JUNQIAN in Shang­hai


The diner sit­ting be­side the siz­zling hot­pot at Hai Di Lao, one of China’s most pop­u­lar restau­rant chains, looks just like any other pa­tron.

But take a closer look and one would re­al­ize that this per­son is armed with a pen, note­book and ques­tion­naire, items that be­tray his real iden­tity — an anony­mous critic who is paid to re­view the restau­rant, from its food qual­ity to ser­vice ef­fi­ciency to clean­li­ness of its table­ware.

More than 70 years af­ter the idea of em­ploy­ing mys­te­ri­ous shop­pers and din­ers was in­tro­duced in the US and later used ex­ten­sively by mar­ket re­search com­pa­nies, 34-year-old Shang­hai na­tive Zhang Mili be­lieves that it is about time such a con­cept gains trac­tion in China.

In Septem­ber, Zhang’s Huami Com­pany launched the mo­bile app Da Ren Lai Ye, which means “Here Comes the Ex­cel­lency”, a plat­form that al­lows any­one to be­come a food or shop­ping critic.

Da Ren Lai Ye has since been warmly wel­comed by com­pa­nies that used to com­mis­sion re­search agen­cies to con­duct mar­ket sur­veys as it is at least 50 per­cent cheaper to use, ac­cord­ing to Zhang. She added that the app has also cre­ated a bond be­tween cus­tomers and busi­nesses as the for­mer has now be­come in­volved in the man­age­ment of the com­pany he or she is eval­u­at­ing.

“In this era of the shar­ing econ­omy, peo­ple are not only shar­ing cars, apart­ments or wardrobes. We be­lieve there is also a sub­stan­tial num­ber of peo­ple who would like to share the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of not only run­ning a restau­rant but also keep­ing an eye on food safety prob­lems,” ex­plained Zhang about her mo­ti­va­tion to cre­ate the ap­pli­ca­tion.

Zhang isn’t the first per­son in China to come up with such a ser­vice. Zero Power In­tel­li­gence was one of the first com­pa­nies in China to do so, but it is slightly dif­fer­ent from Da Ren Lai Ye in that it spe­cially trains peo­ple to pro­duce pro­fes­sional re­views. The com­pany has since its es­tab­lish­ment a decade ago trained 1,500 peo­ple who re­view busi­nesses in 85 per­cent of China’s ma­jor cities.

Da Ren Lai Ye sets no such re­quire­ments for its re­view­ers as Zhang be­lieves that com­pa­nies just want to know ba­sic in­for­ma­tion, such as the state of clean­li­ness and the qual­ity of ser­vice, in­stead of hav­ing to go through long re­ports filled with re­search jar­gon. She be­lieves that ev­ery­one is more than ca­pa­ble of mak­ing such assess­ments.

For ev­ery task com­pleted, crit­ics get to earn be­tween 50 ($7.24) and 280 yuan, de­pend­ing on the com­plex­ity of the task. Zhang said that this rel­a­tively low cost of hir­ing crit­ics means that a greater num­ber of peo­ple get to re­view a restau­rant, which trans­lates to a more com­pre­hen­sive and ac­cu­rate assess­ment.

In a bid to en­sure trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity, users of the app have to pro­vide their per­sonal and bank ac­count de­tails when they sign up.

There is no lack of in­de­pen­dent con­sumer re­views or rat­ings plat­forms in China. Dian­, which last year be­come the coun­try’s largest player in the in­dus­try fol­low­ing its merger with Meituan, now claims to have more than 200 mil­lion monthly ac­tive users from 250 cities na­tion­wide, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial sta­tis­tics.

How­ever, Zhang said that the draw­back of such sites is that the eval­u­a­tions are pub­lic. In con­trast, the re­views by Da Ren Lai Ye are for clients’ eyes only.

“When a com­pany wants to be re­viewed, they are cer­tainly look­ing for prob­lems that they can­not find them­selves. But few would want such prob­lems ex­posed to the pub­lic. That’s the prob­lem with rating web­sites,” said Zhang.

Though the ap­pli­ca­tion has only been around for a few months, Da Ren Lai Ye has al­ready man­aged to at­tract more than 100,000 users and se­cure con­tracts to re­view the 750 Burger King out­lets in China and hot pot chain Hai Di Lao.

Da Ren Lai Ye also counts Sin­ga­porean bak­ery chain Bread Talk as one of its high pro­file clients. The com­pany had dur­ing the Mid-Au­tumn Fes­ti­val in Septem­ber com­mis­sioned Zhang to make sure all of the moon­cakes sold at its thou­sands of out­lets across the coun­try were up to stan­dards — lo­cal food fran­chis­ers have been known to at times use cheaper prod­ucts to boost prof­itabil­ity.

“Pre­vi­ously, we set aside a bud­get of 200,000 yuan to fly our re­gional man­ager ev­ery­where dur­ing the moon­cake sea­son. But this year, we achieved the same goal us­ing less than 10 per­cent of that amount by hav­ing users on the app check on our be­half,” said Fang Zhi, gen­eral man­ager of the fran­chis­ing de­part­ment at Bread Talk.

Last week, Zhang’s app re­ceived its first con­tract from the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion of a district govern­ment in Shang­hai. Ac­cord­ing to the con­tract, more than 2,000 res­tau­rants and eater­ies in the city’s Songjiang district will be scru­ti­nized by the app’s users.

Look­ing ahead, Zhang’s big­gest chal­lenge is to get the thou­sands of mys­te­ri­ous din­ers to be more com­mit­ted to be­ing an anony­mous critic.

“As a startup busi­ness, we can­not re­ject or blacklist users too eas­ily. Some­times we need to work with client com­pa­nies to de­velop the sur­vey ques­tions in a more quirky way so that the crit­ics don’t lose their pa­tience,” she said.

Chu Dong, vice sec­re­tary-gen­eral of the China Chain Store and Fran­chise As­so­ci­a­tion, com­mented that such an app could be the an­swer to the coun­try’s prob­lems with food safety.

“There is an im­bal­ance be­tween two ends: the govern­ment’s ef­forts are lim­ited, while the food providers are nu­mer­ous. Hav­ing so many con­sumers in­volved in the qual­ity check process might be a so­lu­tion,” said Chu.


Zhang Mili's app Da Ren Lai Ye has since Septem­ber at­tracted more than 100,000 users. Zhang Mili, the founder of Da Ren Lai Ye

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