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Logging in to a web of opportunity
By Nie Xin

For Brazilian Julia Crespo, living local is not only about speaking the local language and eating local food. Just as important is doing some online shopping - the Chinese way.

Crespo, who has been living in Shanghai for four years, regards herself "a shopaholic on Taobao," the hugely popular Chinese shopping website.

And she's not alone. More and more expats are taking to Chinese shopping websites, as both buyers and sellers, becoming more attune to local life in the process. For them, this has almost become an essential life skill.

However, some ability in Mandarin - or enlisting the help of patient Chinese friends - is required before dipping a toe into the world of Chinese online shopping.

Studying as a postgraduate at Shanghai University, Crespo was brought into the world of online shopping by Chinese colleagues at the company where she interns.

"At first, I was very curious. I saw Chinese colleagues were receiving packages almost every day: dresses, accessories, and even food and beverages - anything you can imagine. Gradually, I realized that they were doing online shopping, just like eBay," she recalls.

Now Crespo is very experienced on Taobao, with her own account connected to her bank account. Most of her spending is on clothes, shoes and accessories.

"Before you buy products online, compare among several stores, especially by checking the comments of previous buyers. Also, chat with sellers to get more detailed information on products - of course in Chinese," she advises.

Crespo's first purchase on Taobao was completed with the assistance of her colleagues. Researching the product through key words; selecting the store that seemed to provide the best quality and best price; then making the deal and paying online.

Two days later, Crespo received the object of her desire - a T-shirt from Guangzhou.

"The T-shirt was 55 yuan (US$9), plus a 15-yuan delivery fee, a total of 70 yuan. I saw the same product in a mall for almost 200 yuan," says Crespo.

Pleased with her first foray into the world of Taobao, Crespo got colleagues to help her chat with sellers using Taobao Wangwang - an online chatting tool especially for Taobao, which provides a communication platform for sellers and buyers, generally to confirm product details.

There have been some bad retail experiences along the way, Crespo admits, often where the items delivered bear little resemblance to online pictures.

"Some can be returned but some not, depending on the rules the sellers set and the agreements they have," she adds.

Of course, Taobao is not the only popular online shop in China. Piers Carlson from France has been living in Shanghai for more than 10 years, is married to a Shanghainese wife and has two children. As a Zhongguo tong - China old hand - Carlson's online shopping extends beyond Taobao.

The family man is a frequent shopper on Yihaodian.com (No. 1 Shop), a shopping site selling foods, beverages and life products like tissues and cups. "Lower prices and home delivery are the big advantages," he says.

And when the family moved home after their first child was born, Carlson bought electrical goods such as a television, DVD player and lighting from Jingdong (360buy.com), which specializes in home appliances.

"As an expatriate here, taking advantage of online shops is a good way to get involved in local life," he adds.

While Carlson used to buy books and CDs from Amazon, he now also checks the same items on Dangdang.com, a local online bookstore that has diversified to also cover products such as clothes, shoes and electronic goods.

Not content to just be online consumers, some expats have started their own Internet businesses, opening Taobao stores.

Couple Park Min and Park Ha Jung from South Korea opened their online fashion store Narss last October.

Park Ha Jung launched an online shop in Seoul in 2005, selling Korean-made women's clothes. In the same year, she met her husband Park Min, a French native of Korean descent, in Paris.

The couple decided to live in South Korea, where the online shop prospered. But after the birth of their child, Park Ryan, the husband felt it was time for a move.

The couple decided to try their luck in Guangzhou and start a new life there with their one-year-old son.

"I first came to Guangzhou in 2010 to import goods for my store," the wife tells Shanghai Daily. "The people in Guangzhou are nice and friendly, so we decided to move here and open an online store."

In the early days, the store recorded a steady five to six transactions a day, with items ranging from 118 to 300 yuan for each garment.

Previously a sommelier and hotel manager in Paris, Park Min has now joined his wife in the business. Currently, they are launching a menswear section, with Park Min modeling the clothes himself.

The couple have noticed differences between the Chinese and Korean online shopping culture.

"The biggest difference between Korean and Chinese customers are their tastes, due to cultural differences," says Park Ha Jung. "And from a technical point of view, Korea online stores don't have a chatting platform like Taobao Wangwang."

The couple employ three Chinese staff, and Park Ha Jung is busy studying Chinese so she can chat with Chinese customers herself.

They also take advantage of other popular online platforms, such as weibo (Chinese version of Twitter) to promote their store.

The couple are also looking ahead to expanding. "We're so happy living in China," says Park Min. "And that's why we're planning to open an actual store here in the future."

According to rules, to open a store on Taobao, a local ID number should be registered. This means that expat Taobao sellers need a Chinese partner, explains Sun Yuxing, from the public relations department of Taobao.com in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province.

An example of this in Shanghai is online flower shop "You Jian Flower Shop" ("There is a flower shop"). The business is co-run by floral designers from China, Japan, South Korea and France.

"Getting to know the country's culture and communicating with clients in Chinese are the key to success for expat Taobao sellers," Sun adds.

Popular online shopping websites


One of China's most famous online shopping websites, featuring clothes, shoes and bags among its huge number of lines.


Also known as Jingdong, this site specializes in electrical and electronic products.


A book and CD retailer that has expanded into other fields.

 www.yihaodian.com (No. 1 Shop)

Featuring foods and beverages

A Guide for shopping on Taobao and other online retailers

1. Create an account on the website.

2. Use key words to narrow down the shops that may have what you're looking for.

3. Select several stores to compare product descriptions, prices and, most importantly, comments left by previous buyers.

4. Chat with sellers online to get more detailed information about products and agree on a delivery time. Sometimes you can also bargain for discounts.

5. Before you conclude a transaction, check the rules set by the seller to see whether you can return products if not satisfied and obtain a refund.

6. Pay for items either directly using a credit card or through creating an online shopping account for the site. Frequent buyers should set up an online account - the more you buy, the more discounts or special gifts you can get.

7. Last but not least, make sure you fill in your address correctly. This will help ensure you will receive your goods without delay and not give vendors an excuse for tardy service.

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