That cute jacket of your co-worker’s? Taobao. Emergency electricity top-up? Alipay. Fridge broke? Order a new one on JD.com. Countless factors conspire to make expat life in Beijing a series of ongoing miseries, but the sheer joy and convenience of purchasing things online reduces that “bad China day” woe by just enough. Don’t let the foreign characters and questionable front-end design deter you: This is your guide to conquering online shopping in China, and beyond.
Short answer: everything. Frankly, it’s utterly overwhelming, and for many expats, it’s the surfeit of choices as much as the language barrier that prevents them from diving in head-first into the magic of shopping on the Chinese Internet.
To be brutally honest, the way to go is to bite the bullet and set up online banking, phone banking, or both. Both China Merchants’ Bank and ICBC have systems that support Mac operating systems and are more forgiving of non-Chinese ID numbers.
Going on anecdotal evidence, Merchants’ Bank is the most user-friendly. It also syncs smoothly with WeChat Wallet, opening up myriad avenues of consumption, including Didi Dache, juice cleanses and crawfish delivered directly to your door.
If the thought of online banking makes you want to die, consider TaobaoPlus10. Founded by a Chinese entrepreneur and Tsinghua graduate, the service scours Taobao, takes care of payment and arranges shipping, all for a flat 10-percent service fee of the entire order price. Email them at TaobaoPlus10@gmail.com.
Half the challenge, and half the fun of shopping on the Chinese Internet is the barmy, bonkers and bananas items lurking in the dark corners of e-commerce. But if you’re looking to save time and maintain quality control, read on for the tips and tricks. Most of these are Taobao-specific; as the largest platform and least-controlled, it’s where the new consumer requires the most guidance.
Looking for something specific but only know the English name for it? No problem. Many vendors list both Chinese character and English names of products in the listing title. Type it in, and the results should tell you the Chinese name as well. Paste that into the search bar and search again; oftentimes Chinese-only results are cheaper for vendors than the bilingual listings.
In pursuit of goods made for export, or that fell off the proverbial truck? Here are the search terms you need to know:
出口, chukou, “made for export”: This is an easy way to find items that were originally manufactured to be exported. Add the name of the country after to pull up things that were meant to be exported to those countries i.e. “出口欧美” for things that were on their way to Europe (Ou) and North America (Mei).
原单, yuandan, “original order”: Be careful of this one. Even though the meaning implies that these items were part of an original order, it’s actually code for imitation goods.
现货, xianhuo, “available goods”: Pretty self-explanatory, look for these characters if you’re in a hurry; it means that they are in the warehouse and ready to be shipped to you at a moment’s notice.
代购, daigou, “purchase on one’s behalf”: This is a service some vendors specialize in, which is purchasing items from abroad, ostensibly guaranteeing quality and authenticity. The prices will be cheaper than Mainland China, but similar to prices in the West.
正品, zhengpin, “certified goods”: These two characters signify products of a certain quality and trust. Of course, use common sense when reading through all of these markers. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. But at the same time, managed expectations and a healthy sense of humor will beget you hours of amusement and maybe some buried treasure.
货到付钱 huodao fuqian, “cash on delivery” is an essential qualifier for those without the online banking means or patience to register to pay for goods online.
Any combination of those nets you a panoply of options by international designers and brands, though be aware that the powers that be are cracking down on imitations—and the things you’re looking for may well already have official Chinese retail operations, such as cult bag brand Fjallraven.
One of the aspects of Taobao that surprised us the most was the roaring trade in items that one does not traditionally associate with online purchase, for example portable toilet rental, printing services and manufacture, or alternative forms of ID. There’s a market for all of these, and more, only a click away.
Knowing where to start is always an asset. Read on for the strengths of the major sites, and for the warnings to heed when searching.
Tmall.com is the B2C (business-to-consumer) counterpart of Taobao. Where Taobao vendors are generally speaking small fry, the logos on the Tmall homepage are familiar to Western eyes: Nike, Uniqlo and Costco, among others.
If you’re wary of purchasing subpar items from Zhou Schmo in Yiwu, fear not! The products on Tmall are pushed by the official partners of brands such as Gap and Zara. There’s less room for negotiation, but generally speaking, greater peace of mind and dependability.
Best for: Recognizable consumer brands.
Pro tip: Many stores have Tmall-only deals, and nested within that, mobile-only discounts. Consider browsing on your tablet or mobile device to compare prices.
Caveat: Many brands have separate or diffusion collections for Tmall consumers. Don’t expect the latest collections to appear on Tmall first.
Launched in 2003 by the Alibaba Group, Taobao is a temple of commerce, trafficking in everything from the mundane (shoes) to the bizarre (one can pay from RMB30/hour for non-sexual companionship for movies, dinner or conversation).
For a site like this, it’s best to go in with concrete goals in mind, such as a new pair of shoes, or Christmas presents for the cousins back home.
From there, shop for yourself, your loved ones, your pets and even your enemies. Just let us know if you ever track down a vendor who sells mace (the spray, not the spice). It’s quite possibly the only thing we’ve never managed to find online here. On the other hand, SuperMace brand condoms, anyone?
Best for: Everything.
Pro tip: Go in with a goal.
Caveat: Not for the easily overwhelmed. Standard of goods across the board will vary.
All of Taobao or JD a little too much to take on from the get-go? A niche market in independent designers and curated items—Chinese Etsys if you will—have been going strong in the past few years. Chief among them is Yetang.com, an e-commerce site founded by two young Internet entrepreneurs.
Focused on highlighting lesser-known brands and designers from within China and around the world, the site covers many of the same bases as the larger retailers but on a much more manageable scale. Other similar operations include Liangcang (independent designers) and YOHOBuy (streetwear).
Best for: Artisanal, small-batch and unique items.
Pro tip: These sites refresh their wares at a rapid rate. On the one hand, don’t sleep on an item if you really love it—chances are it might be sold out a week later. On the other hand, rapid turnover means that fire sales and deep discounts are also possible. Monitor your loved pieces closely for the best deals.
Caveat: Creativity often comes at a price.
JD.com (formerly known as 360Buy) is another big player in the B2C marketplace especially strong in the consumer goods and electronics department. The site is headquartered in Beijing and particularly popular here for that reason, as this manifests in the impressively rapid speed at which capital buyers receive their purchases.
Note that a much greater percentage of items on JD.com are available for cash-on-delivery in case online payment is beyond the pale. However, since it is not an Alibaba-owned company, certain vendors do not accept Alipay for payment and users might find themselves wrangling with online banking.
Best for: Home goods and electronics, impatient people.
Pro tip: Each one of the portal shopping sites has licenses with different international retailers. For example, Marks & Spencer is on JD.com.
Caveat: Since it is not part of the Alibaba family, vendors who do not accept cash on delivery have a higher chance of not accepting Alipay, either. Make sure you choose from cash on delivery sellers, or have some other form of online banking set up.
Dianping is much more than just a listings-and-review site. Much of its utility comes from the copious numbers of exclusive coupons and group-buying deals from restaurants, cafés, salons, hot springs, tourist attractions and more all listed on the site.
Sick of queuing up and paying out the nose for movie tickets at Megabox? Just purchase them through Dianping instead. The site maintains an extensive database of movie theaters, and it’s often possible to scoop up tickets for less than half-price, even on the blockbuster new releases. You can pay using Alipay or download coupons directly to your phone by entering your phone number on the site.
Best for: Dining, leisure and entertainment.
Pro tip: Group-buying is only one aspect of the Dianping deals. Click on “找优惠” in the top banner to find coupons for dining and entertainment venues, no purchase necessary. For iOS users, Dianping integrates directly with Passbook.
Caveat: Don't forget to read the fine print, and to pay attention to expiration dates.
Amazon.cn is the Chinese counterpart to the American online juggernaut, and also offers a vast number of items for cash-on-delivery, making it an obvious choice for many. Much of the international offerings are available on the Chinese site, though expect mark-ups on electronics such as the Kindle or Fitbit.
Paper-loving Luddites rejoice! The foreign-language book section of the website is well-stocked, and a quick glance at the bargain-books section revealed unexpected delights including Colloquial Cambodian and Lil’ Wayne: The Hip-Hop Biography.
Best for: Obtaining anything that is also sold on Amazon.com, books and pet supplies.
Pro tip: This is another site where many items are available cash-on-delivery.
Caveat: Some popular items will be marked up from their prices in the West.
Food safety is on the tip of everyone's tongue here, but not everyone has the time to seek out organic produce offline at markets, or wishes to buy in bulk. Enter the rapidly expanding world of online grocery shopping, similar to Peapod in the U.S.
TooToo.cn features a highly user- and English speaker-friendly bilingual interface, a cornucopia of available goods, weekly deals and speedy delivery both to Beijing and all over the country. iHerb.com is a natural-foods website that stocks crunchy essentials like kombucha, coconut oil and multi-vitamins that will ship to China for more or less reasonable rates.
Best for: Organic lifestyle essentials.
Pro tip: Order over US$40 on iHerb for discounted shipping and additional savings.
Caveat: Are you really going to need an entire vat of coconut oil?
Recognizing the purchasing power of Mainland China consumers, more and more U.S. or international sites are accepting UnionPay as a method of payment and shipping over here.
UK-based online clothing retailer ASOS is one such, with a dedicated Chinese-language site and free shipping to Mainland China on all orders exceeding RMB249. Luckily for fast-fashion fans, ASOS accepts myriad payment schemes, including Alipay, UnionPay and online banking, PayPal and foreign debit and credit cards.
For those of you hankering after Western-style deals, styles or sizes, know that both juggernaut designer discount site Gilt Group and J. Crew offer shipping to Mainland China. Note that for Gilt Group, one must first set their shipping address to China before the UnionPay or Alipay options will appear.
Best for: Shoppers who miss the comforts and Western sizing standards of home.
Pro tip: These sites often charge flat-rate shipping, so get a group of friends together for a mass order and split the shipping charges.
Caveats: For many sites, China-based payment methods are triggered by specific region settings or shipping addresses. Make sure you’re on the right site in order to utilize Alipay or UnionPay.
If all that Chinese wasn’t confusing enough, there’s a whole other vocabulary of symbols that indicate the trustworthiness and tenure of sellers, customer satisfaction and product reviews on Taobao. Here’s the handy guide to decoding what all those hearts, diamonds, crowns and flowers even mean.
How do you know if a seller is dependable? Look for the crowns. For each transaction, sellers are rated by the buyers. For every positive rating, the sellers accumulate one “point” and for each negative rating, they lose one point. Icons indicate how many points they have accrued through transactions and ratings. Red hearts are the lowest level (i.e. vendors with the fewest number transactions); followed by blue diamonds, blue crowns and golden crowns.
How To Register for Alipay
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