The eBay of the East, But Better
Most probably you’ve heard about Taobao, the largest online marketplace in China - or as TIME magazine put it quite accurately: "The eBay of the East ". You may have also heard that you can find almost anything you can imagine on Taobao, and the prices are much cheaper compared to those similar items sold in your own country. In short, Taobao offers great selection (close to 1 billion listings) and lower prices. It is just a matter of time before Taobao overtakes eBay and Amazon as the largest marketplace on this planet. No wonder you are intrigue to find out how to purchase from Taobao. That's why you read this article, right?
Unfortunately, if you are not living in China, there are at least two main problems that may prevent you from buying from Taobao. Firstly, almost all Taobao store owners only speak and understand Chinese (and let's assume that you don't). Also, most of them can only ship to China. Secondly, let's be frank... there is an issue of trust. How can you be sure you will get exactly what you pay for? The purpose of this article is to help you to alleviate your doubt and fear while navigating into this uncharted territory called Taobao.
If you don't stay in China, the first thing you need to do is to find a trusted friend in China who have some spare time to place an order on your behalf, receive your order, check the quality of the items (and return them if necessary), and then send the package to you. Unfortunately, most of us are not that lucky. That's why you probably have to settle for the second best option: find an honest and experienced Taobao agent. Your Taobao agent will help you to place orders on Taobao, consult sellers if you have questions, do quality checking when items arrive at their office, combine your orders for shipping (if you shop at more than one stores), and finally send the package to your address. You can easily find them by Googling "Taobao agents" on the Web. But, not all Taobao agents are created equally. Some are honest, some are quite OK, and the rest just want to rip off your pocket.
To find a good Taobao agent, do your homework firstly. There are several tips.
After that, you can check and compare the commission fee, exchange rate, and international shipping discount. Remember: only check the fees after you are sure of the agent's reputation.
A small advice regarding to fees: Don't just compare the commission fees. Some agents try to lure you with low commission fees, but then charge higher exchange or shipping rates. If you are not price-sensitive, surely you can disregard the differences. However, if you are price-sensitive or you want to shop wholesale, you might want to calculate further.
In addition to fees, you might need to ask how you should place orders. Some agents only offer you to place order on Taobao using their website interface or by email. In other words, you tell them what to buy, and they will place the order with their own Taobao account. It is the standard practice. However, a few of them go further by creating dedicated Taobao and Alipay accounts on your behalf (Alipay is used to pay all Taobao transaction). If you understand Chinese very well, the advantage of having a dedicated Taobao account is flexible and speedy since you can place any order at any time. Also, if you are a heavy user, you can accumulate shopping points for discounts. If you have a plan to purchase regularly, having a dedicated Taobao account is a better choice (it can be registered although you are not in China).
Agents could help you to make purchase, but you need to find the item by yourself. How could you find what to purchase if you don't understand Chinese at all? Don't worry. Technology provides you with answer: Online translation service. One of the best is Google Translate (https://translate.google.com). No matter what language you speak, you can always translate it to Simplified Chinese. All you need is to type the keywords in your language, and Google Translate will do the rest.
For example, you can type "women's shoes" in your language (English), and Google Translate will give you the translation in Chinese. Please see the screenshot below.
Remember: Google Translate works both ways. You can translate from your native language to Chinese, and vice versa. In case you don't understand the Chinese texts during your Taobao visit, you can always copy the texts to Google Translate and have them translated to your native language.
Using the translations from Google Translate, you can now search Taobao. Let's say, after browsing the search results, you finally find what you want. Job done? Not quite yet.
Remember: one of the main reasons people love Taobao is the potential to find cheaper stuff. The default search results on Taobao is not ranked based on price (lowest to highest). Therefore, you need to dig deeper to find the real treasure (Taobao literally means 'to find treasure').
Fortunately, Taobao has provided you the tool to do that. How? By using the Sort by feature.
After the search results are shown, you can sort the results based on one of those 4 parameters: Comprehensive(综合), Sales(销量), Seller's Reputation(信用) and Prices(价格).
As you can see, the most straightforward way to find the cheapest price is to sort by Price (in ascending order). But keep in mind that things are not that simple. In many cases, the listed price is not the real price for the displayed item. A few 'creative' sellers will break an item into several parts, and list only the cheapest part to represent the whole item. For example, they will put the image of an iPad, but list the price of iPad's data cable to lure you to click into the item page. In other scenario, the listed price is for the cheaper version or smaller size item. For example: the listed price for color black in size 36 is 199 CNY, but if you choose color pink in size 36, the price will go up. So, after you click an item and find several options for the item, be careful. Please consult your agent or use Google Translate to find out what the options mean before committing any purchase.
So, once again, it's very important to pay attention to the Options. Don't buy the item before you understand what the Options mean. If you don't understand Chinese, don't worry. You can use Google Translate to translate the texts from Chinese Simplified to your native language. Or you can also consult your Taobao agent for help. Or you can check Seller's Reputation.
Taobao Shop - it is on the right column.
If TMALL shop, put your mouse on "描述服务物流".
In other words, you cannot rely on the listed price alone. You need additional indicators. Usually we use 2 additional indicators. The first one is to check how many the items are sold (How Many Clients Pay); and the second one is Seller's Reputation. If the item is cheap, but nobody buys it, beware. It doesn't mean the seller is not honest, but there are several reasons: the item is out of stock, the price is not the real price for the item (as described above), or it's a new arrival which has not come out from factory yet. Whatever the reason is, it's a safer bet to choose listings that have been sold several times.
Let's take an example here. You can put the mouse on the item photo, compare the same item of different shops.
Seller's Reputation in Taobao consists of four levels. The levels from the lowest to the highest are: Heart, Diamond, Blue Crown, and Gold Crown. Each level is broken further into 5 grades: 1 to 5. So, the lowest one is 1 Heart and the highest one is 5 Gold Crown. Sellers with reputation of 5 Hearts is higher than 4 Hearts; but 1 Diamond is higher than 5 Hearts, and so on.
Based on our experience, sellers with at least 1 Diamond is quite reliable, but if you want to make an expensive purchase, it's advised to find sellers with at least 5 Diamonds. Since it's not easy to achieve that level, it's safe to assume they will try hard to protect their reputation. The bottom line here is: Find the Cheap Stuff, but Not (Necessarily) the Cheapest. Use other indicators such as Recent Sales and Seller's Reputation, too.
Easy, isn't it? You might be confused for a while, but after several purchases, you will find that things will become easier and easier. You might also learn a few Chinese words along your journey. Bon Voyage!
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