Expat Magazine

The Wonder of Shopping on Taobao: China’s Secret Weapon.

By Mint Mocha Musings @nicoledwebb

Online shopping Taobao Ant

It’s 7:30pm…. on Halloween night. A little three-wheeler Tuk Tuk, loaded up precariously with brown cardboard packages, of all shapes and sizes, darts up the alleyway, screeching to a halt, directly outside our friend’s house. As I wrestle to open the glass door, the driver practically throws the parcel at me! Considering I am dressed as Bat Girl, it’s clearly no object for me and my bat cape to grab that sucker.

China Life | Mint Mocha Musings

Laughter erupts in the house! My friend is averaging about a parcel a day at this point. Who knows what lurks beneath the plain brown wrapping, but it’s sure to be akin to a ‘treasure’ for an expat in this part of the world. 

Aptly so, given it’s from ‘Taobao’ – which translated means: “Searching for treasure.”

Admittedly, it’s taken me awhile to cotton on to the beast that is Taobao. When I first arrived in China and we’d ask where we could get something from, the response was hardly ever, “Oh that little shop called xx just over the road will have it.” Nope, it was always, “Try Taobao!” 

Initially, I just assumed it was the lazy man’s way of accessing something, and mostly I just refused to believe you could get much on it other than Halloween costumes, silly props or secondhand stuff!

More fool me. 

Having just signed up for an account, it seems I’m definitely ‘late’ to the Taobao party!

My Chinese friends say it’s saved their lives and pretty much changed the face of the nation…. ahhh so that’s what all those Tuk Tuks I see racing around town, piled high with packages are up to! 

China Tuk Tuks


I wrote a post when we first arrived about the perils of everything being ‘made in China’ but not ‘found in China.’ While I was on the money — the shops here are devoid of many of the things we come to expect in the West, and/or cost a great deal more given the hefty import tax, I was wrong in saying you can’t get it in China. 

Turns out, Taobao’s where it’s at!  Let me indulge you.

Founded in 2003 by the Alibaba Group, headed by China’s richest man, Jack Ma — the idea behind it was to provide a platform for small businesses and individual entrepreneurs to open online stores. 

Cut to the chase, 13 years later, Taobao marketplace is one of the world’s top ten most visited websites with a combined market gross merchandise volume of 1-trillion yuan! 

Similar to eBay but seemingly better, in a bid to counter their initial expansion, Taobao offered free listings to sellers and introduced website features designed to act in the local consumer’s best interests. 

Things like: instant messaging for facilitating buyer-seller communication and escrow-based payment tool, Alipay – where payment is only released to the seller once the buyer has received his or her goods and deemed them in satisfactory condition. Prior to purchase, the buyer and seller can interact with an instant chat program. It’s not unusual for Chinese online shoppers to inquire about products and bargain before purchasing them!

Buyers can assess seller backgrounds by information available on the site that includes ratings, comments and complaints. The better the reviews, the higher the buyer’s ranking is. 

A general view shows employees sorting packages along a conveyor belt at a hub of ZTO Express Delivery company in Wuhan

Consequently, the market giant became mainland China’s undisputed market leader within two years; eBay shut down its China site in 2006. There are now 500-million registered users.

Today, Taobao has two major platforms – the TMall, where established brand owners sell directly to customers, and the Taobao Market place, where smaller companies and budding entrepreneurs set up shop.

This year it will extend to Hong Kong and Taiwan, with the plan to eventually go global. 


Fittingly so, Taobao’s mascot is an ant, which represents their corporate culture. When Ma introduced Taobao to the outside world he said, “We are the ant army.” 

There are even “Taobao Villages” popping up right across China. Currently over 1000, to be precise. 


In struggling rural areas, farmers have been encouraged to swap their tractors for a sewing machine.

Former argricultural warehouses now house rows upon rows of sewing machines, humming to Alibaba’s beat! 

Farmers go factory in China

One rural backwater has emerged as a booming hub in making dress up costumes, with more than 90 per cent of the villagers taking up the role. Hundreds of busy shops are churning out princess dresses, and super hero outfits (so that’s where my batgirl costume came from). It’s given the once crumbling village a new lease on life – there’s even a Taobao business hotel and Taobao Town Kindergarten!

Truth is, you can get virtually anything on Taobao! And you can get it quickly. 

Goods available on Taobao

Sure there are the clothes, cheap designer handbags, shoes and jewellery, toys, food, milk, baby nappies, cleaning products etc, but it goes so much further. A friend’s mum needed a blood pressure monitor – Voila! Look no further than Taobao!

Need vacuum parts, car parts? Taobao’s your answer. 

Then there are the live scorpions, breastmilk soap, drones and boyfriends for hire, even a trip to space. (Yes! I really did just say all that.) 

The Westin Hotel even sells room nights on Taobao…and international brands are reaching China more than ever before. 

And did I mention the best part? For the most part, it’s much, much cheaper! My American friend is a diehard “Cubs” fan and just ordered baseball jerseys – retailing at US$54.99, she got them delivered to her door a few days later at 88RMB each (that’s US$12.95)!


November 11th is when the real party starts!

Chinese Singles Day Taobao

11/11 is officially Chinese Singles Day and that means the biggest sale of the year! Thousands of international and local brands offer big discounts on Taobao. Being single might be tough for some but apparently it can easily be fixed with some serious retail therapy! (Who am I to disagree!) 

Larger than Cyber Monday in America – in 2011, it took Taobao eight minutes to reach 100 million RMB (US$15million).

Discounts on Taobao China Singles Day

This year it’s expected to break all records, cracking US$15-billion. Alibaba has been hyping consumers up with a pre-sale extravaganza, featuring celebrities like US Pop star Katy Perry and pop band One Direction! There’s even been a live-streamed fashion show in Shanghai allowing viewers to pre order items as they appear on the catwalk! 

Apple, Guerlain, Maserati and Target will be available for the first time, along with Costco, Macy’s, Starbucks and Zara.

So, if you’re looking for me… I may be a little late to the party, but hey I made it!!! 

See you in cyberspace! 

This is China! 

Taobao Retailers

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