In part one of our Culture Shock Series we discussed what to expect from the retail shopping experience in Mainland China, namely that, aside from some boutique shops catering to a specifically expat crowd in expat areas, you cannot expect service in English unless perhaps by blind luck you stumble across a diamond in the rough. The result is that finding what you want or need, particularly if you have specific tastes, will be problematic at best in Shanghai or Beijing’s retail space.
As with the rest of the world and perhaps even more so, Mainland China’s online retail economy is thriving. Prices range from excellent to outrageous and quality from rock bottom to the very best. It is in this vast variety that the problem for Chinese language illiterate expats lies. China’s version of E-Bay is Tao Bao and within its e-walls lie untold treasures and deals that would make even the most avid consumer blush. The problem is that Tao Bao sellers will only have an extremely basic level of written English skills – if any – and given the insanely tight profit margins that most of them operate on, most will be unwilling to deal with a non-Chinese speaker simply because of the amount of time it would consume. In other words, the name of the game on Tao Bao is volume.
One way that Tao Bao excels over E-bay in is in its structural control over a seller’s reputation. Opening a store on Tao Bao is an involved process – much more so than on E-bay. Once an individual has lent their identity to a store, their reputation in running that store stays with them for life. In this way, Tao Bao has been able to control the quality of their stores relatively effectively. Online local consumers base their choice of online vendor as much on reputation and user reviews as price or even quality.
When Amazon opened its doors to Mainland Chinese retailers recently, one Chinese seller hawking wireless power outlet adaptors that allow people to control such things as home lighting through their smartphone received a thoroughly negative review from a tech-savvy American buyer, criticising the complete lack of security on the device and the fact that it was routed through a mainland Chinese server. Soon after, the buyer was contacted by a representative from the company who begged him to retract the review and who continued to implore the buyer for weeks, citing the fact that she will lose her job if the review remained. This example exemplifies the importance Chinese sellers place on user reviews.
While this aspect of Tao Bao makes it structurally more reliable from a buyer’s standpoint, it puts the utility of the site from an expat standpoint even further out of reach, as all reviews are of course in Chinese as is the site itself which, incidentally, has a habit of malfunctioning when using a VPN and/or Google Translate, which is of course blocked by China’s Great Firewall.
The immediate and obvious solution, one would think, is to order online from a US- or Europe-based website. There is one problem, however; when you combine a 4-8 week timeline for shipping by sea (which is the only option given the sky high prices of air freight delivery) with a 2-4 week customs processing timeline and all of a sudden you have a 8-12 week timeline for delivery.