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The Foreigner's Ultimate Guide to Shopping on Taobao

Like almost everyone living in Shanghai, I love to shop online. But, the platform dominating China’s online consumer market isn’t Amazon or eBay, it’s 淘宝 (táo bǎo)Taobao.

I’ve used it to buy everything I miss from the UK - from a new cell phone to the potato chips - that I can’t find in local stores!

And, when my mom comes over to visit me, she sends a huge list of things she wants me to get for her from Taobao, because the prices and choice are so much better than on Amazon or other Western sites. 

Put simply, Taobao is a shopping paradise! But, it can be tricky for foreigners to take advantage, because the website and app are in Chinese. That’s why in this post I’m introducing the key vocabulary you need to know to use Taobao.

How Taobao works

Unlike Amazon, the focus of Taobao’s marketplace is consumer to consumer (C2C) trading. That means the sellers are often individual entrepreneurs or small “Mom and Pop” stores, rather than retail giants. These millions (yes millions!) of sellers offer amazing choice and awesome bargains.  

But, the Taobao website also gives access to another platform: 天猫 (tiān māo) – Tmall, which hosts big brand name stores and typically has more expensive products. Shoppers can browse 淘宝 (táo bǎo) and 天猫 (tiān māo) together or separately via the Taobao website and app (see #3 and #4 in the image below), and use the same account for both platforms.

Incredibly, 淘宝 (táo bǎo) and 天猫 (tiān māo) have more than 500 million users (that’s more than the populations of the USA and UK combined)!

Most Taobao shoppers live in Mainland China, or travel there for business or leisure. But, Taobao’s international service has expanded to several other countries including the US, Canada, and Japan in recent years. 

So, read on to find out how to get the most out of Taobao! 

注册 (zhù cè) – Register and create your account

The first thing you need to do is register. On the top left side of the webpage, click on 免费注册 (miǎn fèi zhù cè) – register for free (labeled "1) in the image below), and follow the steps. 

You’ll have to enter several pieces of information, including a 手机号码 (shǒu jī hào mǎ) or 电子邮箱 (diàn zǐ yóu xiāng) email address, 登录密码 (dēng lù mì mǎ) – login password and 会员名 (huì yuán míng) – username, and 银行卡 (yín háng kǎ) bank card details. 

This is the trickiest part of the process for Chinese language learners. Many of my foreign friends with a beginner level of Chinese have successfully registered on Taobao with no difficulty, but if you’re a beginner and you get stuck, you may want to enlist a more advanced Mandarin speaker to help.

And, once registration is done, it’s easy to 登录 (dēng lù) – log in (2) and shop on Taobao with even a basic level of Chinese!

How to 搜索 (sōu suǒ) – search

The Taobao marketplace is huge. You can buy everything from vintage fine wines to a Superman outfit for your dog. So, the easiest way to find what you’re looking for is to 搜索 (sōu suǒ) – search.

And, because there are so many sellers and stores, it’s important to narrow down your search by 价格 (jià gé) – price (1).  For example, my search for 狗衣服, 超人 (gǒu yī fu, chāo rén) – “dog clothes, superman” returned 22 pages of results!

You can also narrow results down based on whether the seller offers 包邮 (bāo yóu) – free shipping (2), 赠送退货运费险 (zèng sòng tuì huò yùn fèi xiǎn) – allows you to return the item with no cost (3), and whether or not the item is 二手 (èr shǒu) - second hand (4) - by ticking the relevant boxes.

* Tip: You can search in Chinese or English, but Chinese will lead to many more results.  If you're taking our Chinese Character Courses, this is a great way to test your skills.  But if you’re not sure how to write the thing you’re looking for in Chinese, I’d strongly recommend looking up the translation online.

How to get the best 价格 (jià gé) – price  

Taobao has great bargains all year round, but you can maximize savings by buying on 双十一 (shuāng shí yī) – Singles’ Day on 11 November (literally “Double 11” due to the date), when almost all Taobao retailers offer steep discounts. 

Originally designed as a way for single people to treat themselves, 双十一 (shuāng shí yī) is now the number one online shopping day in China no matter whether you’re single or not. For me, it’s a great opportunity to stock up on Christmas gifts!

And, on Taobao retailers typically offer smaller discounts from the standard store price all year round. 

If you click on an item, you can check how much you’re saving by comparing the 价格 (jià gé) – price with the 淘宝价 (táo bǎo jià) – Taobao price (1).  It's the big orange number:

Once you’ve selected your item, click the 加入购物车 (jiā rù gòu wù chē) – add to cart button (2), and when you’re ready to pay up click 结算 (jié suàn) – checkout, then 提交订单 (tí jiāo dìng dān) – submit order to pay.

等快递 (děng kuài dì) – Wait for delivery! 

If you’re ordering from abroad you may have to wait a few weeks for delivery. But, if you’re ordering from China Taobao is generally fast – my orders typically arrive within 1-2 days (which is pretty amazing considering many of them come from thousands of miles across China).

China’s delivery drivers are notoriously hard working, but despite their punishing schedules they are flexible and helpful. For example, if I am not in they’re usually happy to arrange a more convenient time with a quick phone call. And, they never complain about walking up seven floors to my apartment door!

 To thank them, say “辛苦了 (xīn kǔ le) – you’ve worked hard!"

If in doubt, 联系卖家 (lián xì mài jiā) – contact the seller

The biggest worry most people have about using Taobao is quality. And, if something seems too good to be true (for example, that high end designer bag for 200 RMB – around 30 USD) then it probably is!

But, the good news is most Taobao sellers are very willing to answer questions about their products. So, if you have a question about materials or quality, ask!  Sellers can set their own returns policies so it’s always best to check this with them beforehand, especially if you’re making a big, expensive purchase. 

Click 客服 (kè fú) – customer service (before placing the order) or 联系卖家 (lián xì mài jiā) (after placing the order) to chat online to the seller. 

For example, in this screenshot I contact a seller after realizing I’d accidentally ordered my new phone case to be delivered to my friend’s 地址 – (dì zhǐ) address instead of my own (they changed it quickly and easily!):

Have you used Taobao? Do you have any stories or questions to share on online shopping in China? 

We’d love to hear from you in the comments!