Agents help overseas clients get their hands on cheap Chinese products

By Ren Yaoti Source:Global Times Published: 2016/11/10 19:33:39

As demand for Chinese products rises overseas, e-commerce firms are working hard to expand abroad and meet this demand, with giants like Alibaba and small private Taobao agents both exploring ways to entice more consumers to buy directly from China.

A courier counts her packages ahead of the November 11 online shopping spree on Thursday in Beijing. Photo: CFP

A courier counts her packages ahead of the November 11 online shopping spree on Thursday in Beijing. Photo: CFP

In one of Hillary Clinton's leaked emails, written to then US Chief of Protocol, Capricia Marshall, the former Secretary of State asked the official for a carpet she had seen in China.

"Can you contact your protocol friend in China and ask him if I could get photos of the carpets of the rooms I met in during the recent trip? I loved their designs and the way they appeared carved. Any chance we can get this?" she said, reported the World Net Daily.

Back in 2009, sourcing this carpet might have been a headache for the Chief of Protocol, however, with the expansion and development of cross-border e-commerce, Chinese carpets are accessible to ordinary people all over the world, let alone the US Secretary of State.

Global Taobao obsession

Taobao is China's leading e-commerce firm.

Its huge range and delivery speed have made it gigantically popular in China, as Manuel Villing, who used to live in Shanghai, can confirm.

His reply on Q&A website to the question "How does it feel when foreigners first encounter Taobao?" received 394 likes and 112 comments.

Manuel started working for a German company in Shanghai in 2013, and it was there that his local colleagues introduced him to Taobao.

His first order on Taobao was for a 4GB SD adaptor, which cost him only 31 yuan ($4.6), including 10 yuan for shipping.

"It's very cheap, it has everything, it has very good Chinese customer support, both before and after the sale, and it has fast payment with WeChat or Alipay," Manuel explained.

Manuel told the Global Times that the most impressive product he had ever bought on Taobao was a box of coconuts, which took just one day to arrive at Manuel's door.

Now living in New Zealand, Manuel admitted that he misses Taobao. However, more and more businesses that are ensuring that no matter where you live, you can access cheap Chinese products.

Taobao agent

For many Taobao lovers like Manuel, their local colleagues helped them take their first steps on to Taobao, but as awareness of Chinese e-commerce grows overseas,  professional Taobao agents have started to fulfill this mission.

Wang Haicheng became a Taobao purchasing agent in 2008, and is now the owner of a company with over 70 employees.

Unlike most people involved in cross-border trade for individual consumers, he isn't helping Chinese people get Australian baby formula or South Korean cosmetics, but helping people overseas get their hands on Chinese products.

 "At first, it was a special request from one of my clients to buy something on Taobao, and after receiving the products, my client was quite happy due to the lower price and the quality. Then I tried to find similar services on Google but found nothing, so I started doing it on a larger scale," Wang told the Global Times.

According to Wang, Spanish people made up most of his initial client base, followed by the growth of his Russian clientele. He has now sent a huge variety of goods to almost every country in the world.

Wang said that due to shortages or high costs in some countries, Chinese clothes, 3C products and household products are currently the most popular among his clients.

But he recalled that one Dutch client spent 80,000 yuan on a Chinese-made ant nest last year.

Wang's company profits by charging 10 percent of an item's cost as a service fee for the purchase, quality supervision, packaging and delivery.

"At first, we contacted our clients via email, they would in return sent us spreadsheets with detailed information about the products they want, " Wang said, "With  the accumulation of clients, interacting with customers through emails became difficult, so we started building our own platform," Wang added.

Wang's company was the first privately-owned firm to have a website specifically for helping people abroad purchase goods from Chinese e-shops.

But in 2010, Wang's platform met significant problems. The middlemen who held the contact information of the foreign buyers refused to use the website and many even broke away to start their own businesses, taking away many of their old clients.

But Wang's website has built up its own client base since then.

 "Till now, we have already successfully accomplished over two million orders, and we have already done business worth at least 40 million yuan in the first 10 months of this year," Wang told the Global Times.

Alibaba's global strategies

Understanding the competitiveness of Chinese products, Alibaba, Taobao's parent company, is also busy fighting for the global market.

AliExpress is a Taobao-like website that targets overseas buyers. Started in 2010, this so-called international version of Taobao has gained a lot of attention outside of China.

Ranked as the 48th most popular website in the world by Alexa Internet Inc, which provides web traffic data, AliExpress receives most of its views and customers from Russia, the US, Spain and Brazil, and offers over 100 different languages on its website.

It was reported by the Zhejiang Daily on September 5 that over 15.6 million visits to AliExpress every month come from Russia, and on average 300,000 packages are delivered from China to Russia every day.

Wang admits that AliExpress has hurt his business.

"Alibaba, is after all the bellwether of Chinese e-commerce, but the core business of AliExpress is providing products. Taobao agents mainly offer services," Wang said, adding that he's confident he can still make money despite AliExpress.

AliExpress held an international competition earlier in this June, attended by nearly 400 participants to discuss how to promote Chinese domestic brands on social networks abroad.

MoeChanPaw, the online ID of an Italian customer who is also a four-year member of AliExpress, said, "My motto is, if AliExpress is a man, I would marry him."

An Alibaba public relation officer also told the Global Times that Alibaba has advertised on Youtube and Facebook - both of which are inaccessible in China - ahead of the November 11 Singles Day shopping festival.

On November 11, 2015, AliExpress had a total of 21.24 million orders from 214 countries, while Wang's Yoybuy only had 3,000.

Made-in-China crosses border

Though his business has brought Wang fortune and a modicum of fame, he is not yet satisfied.

Wang explained his company is now developing a branch in Portland, USA with a dozen workers running a delivery form printing business which he says is the first step toward his company getting a grip on the US market.

Wang said shipping is the most difficult part of cross-border commerce.

 "Delivery services in Russia are not as developed, only state-run couriers like EMS can reach most areas. Airmail, which is the fast way, may cost approximately 200 yuan for one kilogram, and it might take 7 days to arrive," Wang said.

He went on to explain that missing packages are the  biggest headache for cross-border e-commerce firms.

Maria, a customer of Wang's company, commented on a Taobao tutorial website called How to Tao, complaining about the shipping.

"My package didn't arrive after a month, and there is no prompt tracking update," she wrote.

Wang shrugs at the issue of missing packages, saying his company has always tried to compensate customers when such accidents happen, even referring to an extreme case where they had to repay a customer 15,000 yuan for a missing delivery.

Apart from delivery issues, the quality of Chinese products sometimes leaves a lot to be desired.

"Once a client bought a pair of shoes on Taobao, but they were broken by the second day, and the horrible smell of low-quality leather shoes sometimes even knocks out our staff during quality checks for our clients," Wang said with an embarrassed smile.

Increasingly, Chinese brands are now exploring new possibilities outside China.

Alibaba also aims to expand the Singles Day shopping carnival globally, with CEO Jack Ma ambitiously estimating that roughly one in four people in the world will shop through Alibaba's e-commerce platforms within 10 years, reported the Financial Times.

AliExpress, the international version of Taobao, is working to meet this goal. 

However, piracy is another obstacle for Chinese brands going abroad.

This May, Alibaba was censured by the International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition for not doing enough to stop counterfeit luxury brands being sold on its platforms.

But luckily, popular domestic brands like Xiaomi and Huawei have cast a ray of hope on made-in-China products when going out to the global market.

Kim (pseudonym), a Korean working in China, told Global Times that Xiaomi is quite popular in South Korea.

" My friend never asks me to buy her anything from China, apart from Xiaomi," Kim said.

According to a September report published by China E-Commerce Research Center (CECRC), China exported over 4.49 trillion yuan of products, nearly 83 percent of the total cross-border e-commerce in 2015.

The scale of Chinese cross-border e-commerce in the first half of 2016 has reached 2.6 trillion yuan, a 30 percent increase compared to last year, the CECRC report said.

"Now we are not only focusing on doing business with small buyers, but we also have our own  suppliers, we aim to promote more Chinese products to our foreign clients even before they realize they may need them," Wang said confidently.

Newspaper headline: Taobao travels abroad


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