Taobao is more than just a “Chinese version of eBay”. Taobao is a gigantic, loosely-regulated marketplace; with all the wondrous finds (and occasional bad experiences) that it entails.
One thing you can be sure of is that, if an item exists out there on the planet, it’s probably on Taobao. Here’s what you need to know to get started.
Taobao agent – Yes or No?
If you’re not too confident of your proficiency in Mandarin, then you may want to consider one of the many Taobao agents in Singapore, such as Peeka, or SGshop. An agent is important because Taobao’s “shopping cart” system is not as straightforward as those on other online platforms, like eBay or Amazon.
Transactions on Taobao may require direct negotiation with the seller, through the 阿里旺旺 (Ali Wang Wang, or Ali Want) chat function. In some cases, the seller may need to speak to you about size, colour, quantity, and so forth. These options may not be indicated on a listing (particularly if the seller is also the manufacturer, and custom-builds the items).
A Taobao agent acts as a go-between, in exchange for a small fee. Each agent has their own pricing systems, so you’ll have to clarify with them before engaging them. Besides acting as a translator, the Taobao agent also helps to return defective products for refunds, minimise shipping fees, and warn you against frauds.
Note that you don’t need to create your own Taobao account if you intend to use an agent. You’ll usually create an account with the agent instead, who will handle the transactions for you.
When it comes to currency exchange, the agents are the ones who set the rates. So don’t open a currency converter online, and then wonder why you’re being charged something totally different – you need to ask the agent directly for their exchange rates. It’ll be especially useful to have a Multi-Currency Account for this. When you can hold yuan in your bank account, you can spend it on Taobao without having to use a conversion process (thus evading any unfair exchange rates from an agent).
Google Chrome is the most practical browser to use with Taobao. When you open Taobao in Chrome, it will offer to translate the site to English.
Photo: Benjamin Dada
Now as you probably know, direct translations are often bad (and sometimes hilarious). But you’ll at least be able to read words like “settlement”, or “shipping”.
Create Your Taobao Account
Once you open Taobao, search the top of the screen for this cute looking guy.
From there, there’s a tab at the top of the page that lets you translate it to English. You should now be able to create an account, and start shopping.
Naming Conventions – There Are No Rules!
The naming conventions on Taobao are a little more…exotic than what you’d find on Carousell, Amazon, or other shopping sites. Some sellers may use strings of numbers to get your attention, such as $888,888,888 for the pricing. Likewise, some listings will be descriptions of products (e.g. iPhone case, portable oven, mic stand), whereas other listings will use the actual brand name of the product (e.g. AMD, Microsoft, Samsung).
There may also be listings that aren’t selling anything – these may just be advertisements for a particular store.
This may be disorientating to new users; but over time and with practice, you’ll get used to searching around and finding what you want. There’s a “related products” tab on each listing, to help you out a bit. There’s also a side-benefit to all this: you may stumble across something you weren’t looking for, and it happens to be awesome.
Learn To Use The Feedback Ratings To Avoid Rip-Offs
Taobao uses a point based system to rate its various users. The points are visually represented by icons such as hearts (10 to 250 points), diamonds (500 to 10,000 points), silver crowns (20,000 to 500,000), and gold crowns (1,000,000 to 10,000,000).
As a rule of thumb, any seller with a gold crown is probably a registered business, and therefore the safest to deal with.
As you’re new to Taobao, try to deal only with sellers who are rated four diamonds or above. Anyone rated lower is risky, and you’d best get an agent (see point 1) if you want to deal with them.
Get Help For Your First Few Orders
The order form isn’t translated, so you should get help from a friend who is proficient in Mandarin. After you do this once or twice, you’ll subsequently know which boxes to fill with your details.
You’ll need to fill in your name, address, and postal code, along with a phone number. You don’t need a landline though (you can leave that blank).
Be aware that there’s an added charge of three per cent, for using your credit card (if you can get someone in China to order on your behalf, you can avoid this fee). If you set up an Alipay account in Singapore, you can also avoid the added credit card charge. Once you’re ready to buy, click 结算.
Understand The Shipping Options
There are three shipping options presented:
Taobao Global Direct Shipping is the simplest. It means Taobao will send the item to you, at the listed price. Note that the price given is the total price, inclusive of the item’s cost and various postal fees.
Global Consolidate and Shipping means that your various purchases (from different sellers) are bundled together and sent to a freight forwarder. The shipping cost is based on the total weight of the package, and the forwarder’s own pricing policies.
You’ll be able to select from a list of freight forwarders. But for newbies, we suggest always picking the one with the highest “praise” rating (that forwarder has the best feedback).
If you use this option, you only pay for the cost of the items first. The cost of shipping is paid when the items get to the warehouse, and are weighed up.
Contact seller for price means you want to chat directly with the seller. Use this if you want to arrange your own shipping methods.
Once you’re done, click the big orange button at the bottom of the screen. Your stuff is now on its way. Happy shopping!
What If The Item Doesn’t Arrive?
If the item doesn’t arrive at all, you’ll have to open up the order page for your refund request. Look for 已买到的宝贝 (Order History), and click 申请售后 (After sales application).
Next, click 要求淘宝介入处理 (Mediation). You can either choose 绿色通道 (Expert mediation), or 淘宝小二 (Taobao’s direct mediation). In the case of the former, a panel of Taobao experts will review your refund request. For the latter, Taobao itself will handle the situation.