I arrived on the online shopping scene rather late in the game, and I honestly had no idea what I was getting into. It was only once I’d heard my Chinese co-workers talking about their purchases around the water cooler, checking out clothing online, and receiving deliveries from the postman at their desk at work, that I decided I might like to try for myself. Online shopping has taken China by storm, and the most popular site is Taobao, which is like a Chinese version of eBay, although Amazon (in conjunction with the Chinese company Joyo) has a share of the market too. Taobao is to China what eBay was to America about 5 years ago, taking the country by storm, turning everyone and their dog into home-grown entrepreneurs, and providing a vast array of goods to people who would otherwise have no access to them.
And who is in more need of hard to find goods than expats in China? Expats frequently complain about China’s lack of English language books, good coffee, cheese, large sized clothing, and Western brand “stuff,” from toys to baby formula to laundry detergent. And delightfully, all of these are available to be purchased online, from your home, and will be delivered straight to your door, practically anywhere in the country. Putting it plainly, sites like Taobao are an expat’s lifesaver. But there’s just one catch – Taobao, and other China-based sites, are all in Chinese, no option for English.
For those of us who are moderately literate in Chinese, this doesn’t pose much of a problem. The vocabulary needed for online shopping isn’t extensive, and foreign products are often listed by their foreign names, which means all you need to do is search – and the search box is usually obvious on any site – for a name in English and you’ll see results. The rest is fairly intuitive. You’ll see a price, and you’ll see a shipping fee, or 运费 “yùnfèi.” Choosing 快递 “kuàidì” means choosing an “express” shipping company, a private company not associated with the post office. This option is sometimes more expensive, but always faster, and usually more reliable. Some sellers will only offer an “express” option and refuse to work with the post office due to unreliability and the lack of the option to track your parcel. Other words to keep in mind are:
尺码 “chǐmǎ” -- “size”
付款 “fùkuǎn” -- “pay”
退款 “tuìkuǎn” -- “refund”
立刻购买 “lìkè gòumǎi” – “purchase immediately”
加入购物车 “jiārù gòuwùchē” – “place in shopping cart”
二手 “èrshǒu” – “secondhand”
全新 “quánxīn” – “brand new”
While these words will get you started, if you plan on shopping independently on a Chinese site, its best to have a good working knowledge of Chinese, as sometimes sellers will contact you if there is a problem with your purchase (they don’t have the size you want, or they need to verify your address), and rarely do they speak English. Delivery people will also call your cell phone if they show up with a delivery when you’re not home, so you’ll need to be able to tell them something if they call. However, having no Chinese should not discourage you or cut you off from online shopping – harass a Chinese friend for a favor. Chinese people are usually delighted to help foreigners shop online, for them it’s like a pusher giving a newbie their first hit. They delight in introducing someone else to the addiction.
In order to get yourself set up for online shopping, you’ll need online banking. Most Chinese banks offer online banking these days, and I’ve found the services of the Merchant’s Bank to be the most conducive to online shopping (as a side note, Merchants Bank will accept deposits into your account in foreign currency, which you can yourself convert online into RMB with the click of one button. It’s incredibly convenient). Most sites also accept Visa as well, if you happen to not have a Chinese Bank account, but most expats have a local account with one bank or another, and opening up an online banking account with your Chinese bank is not hard to do. Once you have online banking you pay directly online, and most banks do not charge a processing fee for this. With sites like Taobao, as with eBay, your payment is only released to the seller once you have received the item and confirmed that you agree to pay. After the transaction you’ll be asked to rate your seller, a process which Chinese sellers take very seriously. You have the option of 好，中， or 差, good, fair, and bad respectively, but don’t even think of giving a “fair” unless you really feel very strongly that the seller has been remiss and, most importantly, you have directly communicated the matter with the seller and are still not satisfied. Chinese sellers can be brutal to buyers who give “fair” or “bad” marks to sellers, often “outing” them online and putting them on a black list of sorts. I have been shopping on Taobao for almost a year now, and I still have not had any need to give a seller anything other than a “good” mark, and I feel it is rare to run into a truly bad seller.
So what can you buy online anyhow? Like I mentioned before, practically anything. My favorite purchases, however, are books and clothing. Books, in particular, are an excellent value online, since they can be purchased used for a fraction of what new English books in China cost. While new books can run you well over 100RMB apiece in China, used books can be had for less than half of that. Many sellers also carry up to date versions of popular foreign language magazines like People, Time, Maxim, Glamour, Newsweek, and others. The internet is also a good source of factory-reject foreign brand clothing. If you think back to your home country, and what brands have clothing “made-in-China,” you will certainly be able to find those brands at Chinese online shops. Brands like Gap, Abercrombie, Monsoon, Gymboree, and Next all have factory reject outlets online. Look for the words 原单 “yuan dan” which means that the clothing was an “original order” directly from the foreign supplier, but was either surplus or rejected for some reason. Often these clothes will have tiny, minor, undetectable defects, but will otherwise be fine to wear. You can get brand name clothing for less than 100RMB, and not only that, you can find larger sizes and clothing that goes by familiar, foreign, sizing systems.
For expats starved for a taste of home, online shopping can be a lifesaver, and once you get started, you won’t be able to stop. Luckily online shopping is often more affordable than trips to fancy expat grocery stores, or import bookshops. The clothing you buy online is cheaper than what you’d buy in a shop because the overhead is less. Online shopping is an affordable, convenient, even fun way to get your fix of the goods that you miss in your day to day life.
Online and On Time – Buying Things Online for Delivery to China: English-language Books and More
Planes and Plastic – Using an International Credit Card to Buy Plane Tickets in China
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