Expats hooked on the Taobao way of life

Tatiana Gordeeva
With Double 12 upon us, a growing number of expatriates, along with the Chinese, are hooked on to their mobile phones or laptops in an online buying spree.    
Tatiana Gordeeva
Expats hooked on the Taobao way of life

Meline Khachmanukyan from Armenia, who has been in China for more than five years, can’t imagine her life without e-commerce site Taobao.

“I can find everything on Taobao, from food to books, bags, jewelry, clothes and household items — anything you can imagine,” says the 25-year-old student. “It saves my time and money. And more importantly, it offers a lot of goods that I cannot find in physical stores!”

Khachmanukyan says the online shopping platform has made her life comfortable and convenient as she does not have to spend long hours shopping in crowded stores. Everything is just a click away.

Taobao, launched in 2003 by Alibaba Group, has arguably turned into the No. 1 marketplace in China with over 500 million registered users and a great variety of choices. It has become an essential part of life for not only Chinese people but also expatriates like Khachmanukyan.

The record-breaking figures of the Double 11 shopping spree on November 11, also known as Singles Day in China, was an epitome of how the Taobao way of life has caught on among expats. Statistics showed that this year 225 countries and regions participated in the 24-hour shopping festival, which was initiated in 2009. According to Alibaba, its sales totaled 168.2 billion yuan (US$24.4 billion).

BBC reported that Taobao’s one-day sales could easily beat the entire US Thanksgiving period which includes Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Kirill Kholodenko, 23, a master’s degree student from Russia, admits that the Double 11 did affect him and, as a result, he bought more than he’d planned to.

“I’d made a list of necessities before that day but ended up buying much more stuff and spending much more money! You know, all things were cheaper than the regular days. It is a psychological trap!” says Kholodenko who also points out the long delivery time.

“If you spend 400 yuan purchasing things from different vendors on Double 11, Taobao offers a 50-yuan discount. So the total discounts can be a good saving,” say Radna and Nikita Tikhonov, a married couple who live in Shanghai. Radna is from Russia and Nikita from Ukraine.

Expats hooked on the Taobao way of life
Ti Gong

Nikita Tikhonov, from Ukraine, proudly shows off his Double 11 purchases.

The next big sales day is on Tuesday — December 12, or Double 12, with discounts reportedly up to 70 percent.

Although Taobao is in Chinese, expatriates are finding ways to join the trend.

Kholodenko has been using Taobao since 2010 when he first came to China. He says there are no e-commerce sites abroad that can compare with Taobao in terms of sheer quantity of goods, speed of delivery, cheap prices and the fast way to connect to a seller.

But still Kholodenko admits that he also has had some embarrassing situations. 

“One day I was searching outfits for Halloween and quite unexpectedly found in the results some erotic content and also masks of US President Donald Trump!” he recalls. “I think, it’s necessary to filter relevant advertisements to avoid such weird situations.”

Another important advantage is that expats can buy their home-made products on the platform.

“On Taobao, you can find different stuff produced from your home country. For instance, we buy a great variety of Russian and Ukrainian food ingredients like curd, cheese, sour cream, grains and sweets. Besides, we can also buy books from America, sauces from Canada, candies from Indonesia and souvenirs from Ukraine,” says the couple.

Kholodenko usually looks for clothes, shoes, food, household items and electronics.

“The most expensive stuff I bought was a new model of Apple watch for 3,000 yuan and the cheapest — a Japanese Pilot pen for 12 yuan that I couldn’t find anywhere else,” Kholodenko says.

Expats hooked on the Taobao way of life
Ti Gong

Kirill Kholodenko, from Russia, is obsessed with online shopping in China.

The Russian man says the Chinese-language interface is not a big problem for him as he uses online dictionaries to translate the names of Chinese goods into Russian and vice-versa. 

Besides, there is a function in the mobile app that allows people to scan the image of a real item and find it on Taobao. One of the useful methods he wants to share with other expats is how to find the name-brand clothes on Taobao with the help of vendor code.

“Go to a real shop, try the clothes and then take a picture of its vendor code. Then input this code into the search bar on Taobao. You will find the same model which are usually much cheaper. That way I bought a winter coat for 800 yuan on Taobao, while at the retail shop the price was 1,500 yuan. It is a huge difference!” says Kholodenko.

But product quality is an issue that still concerns many expatriates.

“You know, photos can be deceptive. Many shop owners display pictures that don’t match the real products. They use different filters to make it look brighter, fancier and more attractive. You need to check the comments if you want to know how your product looks in real life,” says Khachmanukyan.

She often advices her foreign friends to read the comments first, especially those with photos submitted by customers. It’s better to stay careful and verify the quality, size, price and rating of an individual vendor.

“If you find later the goods are not the same, contact the shop owner immediately and return it. It’s as convenient as buying a product,” she said. 

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