Online Shopping in China: Beginner’s Guide

Online Shopping in China: Beginner’s Guide
Aug 13, 2011 By Mark Turner ,

Most expats are comfortable with online shopping back home because they know how to spot the deals while avoiding the fakes and scammers. But in China it is not as easy with language and cultural barriers. As a result many don’t even try to dive into the world of online shopping in China, but really you are missing a lot. It’s time to get your feet wet, and we can help.

Welcome to Taobao.
Welcome to Taobao. Photo:

Taobao: The Holy Grail of Online Shopping

Taobao ( is probably the most well known of all the Chinese online shopping options and a fantastic starting point for would be online shoppers. It is well worth a browse just to see the massive scope of online shopping available in China. Taobao is the daddy of online shopping platforms in China and the equivalent to throughout the rest of the world. Taobao’s platform differs from Ebay in two distinct ways: Firstly, it focuses on being a collection of stores with customizable spaces. In turn, this creates the second difference, that being the shopping system in Taobao relies less upon auctions, it allows for more instantaneous communication and bargaining with vendors via ‘WangWang’, Taobao’s instant messaging platform.

Taobao has all manner of shops: from quirky, small independent ones, to large scale ‘cyber mall’ outlets in which the quality and authenticity of products is guaranteed. For an example of the latter, take a look at Taobao’s electronics mall

Getting Started on Taobao

The most convenient way to make payments for online shopping in China is with an Alipay account Although, it should be mentioned that certain online shopping service providers, such as a great many Taobao stores, give shoppers a ‘cash on delivery’ option when making a purchase. This is also a good way to safeguard against receiving goods being delivered that do not match their description.

It is also worth noting that you can purchase Bian Li Tong top up cards from vendors that sell telephone cards, should you not want to go to the trouble of opening a bank account. This method is also a good option when a cash on delivery option is not available.    

Opening an Alipay Account

The first step in getting an Alipay (支付宝) account is acquiring a bank account. This really requires a minimum of fuss as it only takes about 15 minutes to open an account at a bank after braving the queues. All that is needed is a passport and maybe a little help in interpreting the form, plus a small amount of money for starting up the account. China Construction Bank even has its own Alipay debit card which means that users don’t need to even go to the (minimal) trouble of registering online with Alipay.

Once you have your bank account, armed with your passport number, mobile phone number, email address and a little patience you can go to the Alipay registration page

A helpful guide for navigating this registration process can be found at:

Group Buy: A Big Thing in China

Apart from Taobao another huge part of the online shopping experience in China is group buy websites. In essence, the idea of a group buy website (such as Groupon in America) is that they offer group prices for real-world products and activities online. These websites, which offer a great way to save money, are increasingly popular in China and offer fantastic discounts on a wide variety of products and services from spa and massage treatments to restaurant vouchers and everything in between. One of the most popular group buy sites is

Popular group buy website Lashou.
Popular group buy website Lashou. Photo: crunchbase

In contrast to Western style discounts which are expressed as % off, (i.e. 30% off the original price), Chinese shops mark reductions with the word ‘zhe’ and a number less than ten. According to the Chinese system, discounts are calculated inversely meaning that a lower number means a greater discount i.e. 4is a 60% discount and 8.5is a 15% discount. The premise of group buy sites is that they offer great discounts and their deals, sometimes from third party retailers and sometimes directly from the site, are available for purchase over a set period of time.

Product listings on these sites commonly feature a little box giving a count down for the end of the deal, an original price, the discounted price and the discount ratio.   

Great deals can be found on group buy sites; however, not all of the products available on these sites are always legitimate. The best way to approach purchases is with caution; if something seems too cheap to be real then it probably isn’t. Common sense, a little stumbling about and observing will have you finding the best, most “kosher” bargains. One site which carries an international label and prides itself on bringing quality discounts as opposed to bargain basement wares is Gaopeng (tall friend) is the China arm of international company Groupon, which focuses on quality by offering just one deal each day per city.

Taking cosmetics, a Chinese market notorious for counterfeit goods, as an example, is a recently founded group buy cosmetics site which vouches for the authenticity of its goods. Listings commonly feature photographs detailing the minutiae of a products packaging, including serial numbers and expiry dates. This level of detail is in contrast to that of the less detailed listings and more dubiously priced (read too cheap to be true) products featured on other group buy sites such as

The free market with ‘Chinese characteristics’ is still well in China, and online shopping is a testament to its ‘alive and kicking-ness’. It is true that you can find almost anything imaginable for purchase online- a recent afternoon idling on Taobao even lead to my discovery of an ‘unusual’ vendor with fruit trees and chipmunks for sale. There is a world of bargains (and also lemons of the non-fruit kind) out there. An important rule for buying is that you should chat and make inquiries, either in person or through a Chinese speaking/writing friend, and only make a purchase after doing your homework if an item is expensive. If an item costs just a few RMB- as so many do- then you might as well give it a whirl, you could be pleasantly surprised.

Related Links
How to Save Thousands through Online Shopping in China
How To: Set Up an Online Bank Account in China
Top 10 Most Popular Online Gaming Companies in China

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Keywords: online shopping in China how to use Taobao group buy sites in China guide to online shopping in China


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