Public relations account director Goh He Lin and her husband, bank analyst William Toh, at their four-room Housing Board flat in Kim Tian Road on 18 July 2015. The couple saved about $2,800 by buying their four ceiling lamps and two bedside lights from Taobao, leaving them more money out of their $40,000 renovation budget to spend on other items.
Like many new home owners, public relations account director Goh He Lin and bank analyst William Toh wanted to decorate their four-room Housing Board flat in Kim Tian Road in style, but without breaking the bank. In particular, they wanted statement lights such as exposed lightbulbs, which they hung in a cluster, creating a chandelier-like installation; and a sleek, black dome light with detailed carving on the inside of its shell. Buying these fixtures at local stores here would have set them back by a few thousand dollars.
Then a contractor told them to have a look at a shopping website called Taobao Marketplace, where most local suppliers were shopping too. The couple had used the site to buy accessories for their wedding photo shoot, but did not think of using it for homeware. It turned out that the domed ceiling lamp they had wanted cost $100, including shipping. A similar one would cost $700 in a shop here. The couple saved about $2,800 by buying their four ceiling lamps and two bedside lights from Taobao, leaving them more money out of their $40,000 renovation budget to spend on other items.
For budget-conscious shoppers, Taobao is a godsend. It is one of China’s largest e-commerce platforms, with more than 800 million product listings and over 500 million registered users. Called the Chinese version of eBay, it has long been a popular go-to website for those looking for clothes, bags and small tech accessories such as cellphone covers. But home owners here are also now buying big-ticket items from it, such as chairs, tables and beds as well as home accessories such as pillows and automated floor cleaners.
The problem is, goods from Taobao bear the “Made in China” stigma: cheap but lacking in quality control.
Most buyers here are resigned to a certain degree of risk when they shop online for goods they have never seen or touched, or accept that some flaws are part of the cheap deal. Even Mr Toh, 31, who bought the lighting fixtures from the website, expected some “scratches or broken lightbulbs”. To his pleasant surprise, the lights came in perfect condition. He says: “As with any shopping done online, you never know what you’re going to get when your items are delivered. If you’re up for the risk, go for it.”
But it is possible to minimise the risk of buying a dud.
Creative design consultancy company owner Christopher Tan and his wife, clinical assistant Feng Yiwei at their four-room HDB flat in Sengkang on 22 July 2015. They bought most of their furniture over Taobao, including a sofa, coffee table, roller blinds, dining bench and chairs.
Mr Christopher Tan, 34, owner of creative design consultancy company Chris Jaren Design and an avid Taobao fan, says he checks past reviews of the item, the seller offering it and how many items have been sold.
Launched by Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba Group in 2003, Taobao is a consumer-to- consumer site in Chinese. It is the ninth most visited website on the Internet, with visitors mainly from China, the United States, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan, according to Alexa Internet, a website that provides online traffic statistics.
Often associated with Taobao is Tmall.com, a business-to- consumer website also under Alibaba, which features a large number of international and Chinese brands and retailers. Items on Tmall can be found through the Taobao search engine, but prices can be slightly higher.
A third Alibaba subsidiary, Aliexpress, is an online marketplace, available in English and other languages, for consumers to buy directly from China. It has attracted online shoppers who have difficulty reading Chinese, although its products can be more expensive than Taobao and Tmall. For example, a hand-held, lightweight bladeless fan costs US$23.21 (S$31.85) on Aliexpress. A similar- size fan costs 59 yuan (S$13) on Taobao and 68 yuan on Tmall.
Through the years, Taobao has garnered many local fans. The Financial Times reported that 280,000 users from Singapore alone registered on the site in 2012.
While there are other online megamalls such as eBay and Amazon.com, Taobao edges out the competition as its wares are often cheaper, as seen in the case of home furnishings. Cost is kept low as many of the products sold on Taobao come from the manufacturers themselves, who can skip the middleman and sell directly to the consumers, says Assistant Professor of marketing Hannah Chang, 34, at Singapore Management University. “Also, the price of renting retail space has increased over the last few years in Singapore. Since Taobao sellers have no store, this cost savings can be passed on to the consumer,” she adds.
Over the years, the website has become easier to use for Singapore- based shoppers. It now accepts international credit cards, instead of restricting purchases to those made with a Chinese bank account. For those who cannot read Chinese, there is a picture uploader function, which helps users search the website for similar products using photo recognition. They can also input URLs.
Products from Taobao can be shipped to buyers outside of China via parcel forwarders. Previously, shoppers had to engage Taobao agents to help with their purchases.
But these agents, who have Singapore offices, are still a popular option, as Taobao can be tricky for newbies. They offer services such as translation, helping buyers return unsatisfactory or incorrect items and consolidating multiple orders. Many Taobao agents – be they those who ship products here commercially such as SGshop, Peeka and 65daigou or freelance agents – have popped up here in the last few years. They say the amount of furniture bought by shoppers here every year is increasing.
For example, one in two orders on Peeka now includes “bigger” items such as furniture, mirrors, vases and artworks, instead of only small accessories and fashion items, says Mr Ron Tan, 37, one of its founders and partners. Three years ago, he brought in just one sofa – a piece he bought for himself. Now, furniture is a common item on Peeka’s shipping list. Mr Tan puts it down to Taobao’s advertisements here and changing its purchasing policy.
He adds: “Singaporeans are more adventurous now, especially when they read reviews and see the actual products their friends bought off Taobao. “Now, shoppers are willing to do away with having no warranty and additional quality checks which increase costs, as they can save so much.”
Taobao enthusiasts have indeed been spreading the love by starting Facebook groups such as Taobao Sharing and Taobao Marketplace!!!, where pictures and reviews of their purchases are shared. Some users even find new buyers for products they do not want.
Ms Joanne Chan, who runs a translation company, with her husband, wealth manager Stephen Couch, at their four-room HDB flat in Tampines. They have bought most of their furniture over Taobao and Tmall, including a standing lamp, roller blinds, four bar stools and practically all the lights in their flat.
Others such as Ms Joanne Chan, 39, who runs a translation company, started businesses off the website’s popularity. She started Taobao4u, a personalised shopping service which helps those who cannot read Chinese. She was inspired to do so after saving $20,000 buying a range of items for her four-room HDB flat in Tampines, which included lights for the apartment, a stationary bicycle, a sink, a rain shower set, roller blinds and four bar stools. She is married to wealth manager Stephen Couch, 50. They have no children.
While shoppers can easily get carried away with filling up their virtual carts, seasoned shoppers advise caution. Teacher Cynthia Lim, 26, who started buying small items such as clothes and baking tools, says the products can be “a hit or a miss”. So, only after extensive research on product reviews and seller reviews did she buy a dining set, which included a 1.8m-long table for eight, for $800.
Ms Lim, who is married to a 29-year-old customer service manager and lives in a three-room HDB flat in Tampines, says: “Furniture pieces are big items which take up space. So even if you save a lot on Taobao, but it’s not what you want or doesn’t fit your home when it arrives, you will lose money. “Before you buy furniture, go to shops here, compare prices and look at online reviews. Also, look at how popular an item is on a seller’s page. “Taobao can save you a lot of money – you just need to do your homework.”
This article first appeared on The Straits Times, 25 July 2015, Written by: Benson Ang & Natasha Ann Zachariah