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Guide to Taobao

Taobao - The eBay of the East, but better!

by It Pin(Indonesia), 42agent's Best Friend.

So, 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 on 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 online 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, they 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 alliviate your doubt and fear while navigating into this uncharted territory called Taobao.

Step 1: Find A Friend or Taobao Agent in China

The first thing you need to do if you don't stay in China, 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 your address. Unfortunately, most of us are not in that position. That's why you probably have to settle for the second best option: To find an honest and experienced Taobao agent. Your Taobao agent will help you to place orders on Taobao, ask sellers should you have questions, check the items when arrived, combine your orders (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 equal. 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 first. There are several tips:

  1. Check the registration date of their website. You can go to http://www.whois.net and type the domain name to find out when the site is registered. Site's age is just like wine's. The longer they exist, the better. Beware if site was created in the last few months. Even if they are created with good intention by some aspiring entrepreneurs, they haven't been tested yet. The rule of thumb is to find an agent with at least 2 years of experience. Of course, site's age it is not a guarantee. So, you need to research further.
  2. Check the site reputation by using site like http://www.webutation.net . Visit webutation.net and type the site domain (eg: 42agent.com) on the search bar to find out the reputation score. Since the score is calculated independently by combining several factors, it is very difficult to manipulate. Basically, site with score above 60 could be trusted. Of course, the higher the score, the better. Still uncertain? Then, try the next step:
  3. Use search engine to find any online reviews on the agent (from online forums or blogs). For example, if you want to find out what others are talking about 42agent.com, you can use search terms such as "42agent review" or "experience with 42agent" or "shopping taobao with 42agent", etc. Gather as much information as you can, and make your own critical conclusion.
  4. Some agent also put customer testimonials on their site. Sure, some of the testimonials could be faked. Agents could ask their friends or family members to write "too-good-to-be-true" testimonials. So, be critical when reading those testimonials. The best testimonial pages are the one that have some negative feedbacks (but more positive ones). It means the site owners are quite honest to leave intact the negative feedbacks. On the other hand, beware of testimonials containing 100% positive feedbacks, especially with bad English grammar.

After that, you can then 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). The advantage of having a dedicated Taobao account is flexibility and speed since you can place any order 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 (but you need to ask your agent first if they can do that for you.)

Step 2: Befriend with Google Translate

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 a bit about Chinese? Don't worry. Technology provides you with answer: Online translation service. One of the best is Google Translate (http://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 (with the translation process circled in black):

After the translation is performed, just select and copy the translation and then put into Taobao search bar (circled in black):

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.

Step 3: Search for Cheap Stuff, But Not (Necessarily) the Cheapest

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, isn't it? Not quite. 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 5 parameters: Popularity (人气), Sales (销量), Seller's Reputation (信用), Newest Additions (最新), and Prices (价格) (circled in black):

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. Oftentimes, 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 the item. In other scenario, the listed price is for the cheaper version or smaller size item. For example: the listed price is for size S, but if you choose size L, 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 are before committing any purchase.

In other words, you cannot rely on the listed price alone. You need additional indicators. Usually I will use 2 additional indicators. The first one is to check how many the items are sold in the last 30 days (Recent Sales); and the second one is Seller's Reputation. If the item is cheap, but nobody buys the item, 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 for the seller. Whatever the reason is, it's a safer bet to choose listings that have been sold several times. And as always, after you click, please pay attention to the Options. Make sure again the price is really the price for the item you are looking for.

Let's take an example here. In the picture below there are 3 listings for the same shoes. Two of them have Recent Sales of 0 (Zero), and only one has Recent Sales of 3. In this case, I advise you to choose the one with 3 transactions (the more the better).

After you click the item, as I said before, please pay attention to the Options. You can see there are several options for this item, and the listed price 6.90 is actually for size 33.

However, if you want to buy size 36-40, the price jumps to 13.10.

So, once again, it's very important to pay attention to the Options. Don't buy the item before you understand what the Options are. If you don't understand, don't worry. You can use Google Translate to translate the texts from Chinese Simplified to your native language.

On the item detail page, you can also check the Seller's Reputation, which is on the right column (circled in black):

Seller's Reputations in Taobao consist of four levels. The levels from the lowest to the highest are: Heart, Diamond, Blue Crown, and Red 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 Red 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 my experience, sellers with at least 1 Diamond is quite reliable, but if you 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. In the example above, the Seller's Reputation is 2 Blue Crown. So, I'd say it's very safe to buy here.

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.

If you have made your mind to buy the item, you can tell your agent the URL of the page and your selected option (if any). Alternatively, if you have a Taobao account, you can directly select the desired option, change the quantity (if you want to buy more than one), and then click the Purchase button (the rectangle blue button with shopping cart icon). The item will be saved in your shopping cart until you decide to check out.

You can visit your shopping cart at any time by clicking the shopping cart icon on the top right corner on every Taobao page. Easy, isn't it? You might be confused for a while, but after several purchases, I promise you that things will get easier. You might also learn a few Chinese words along your journey. Bon Voyage!