29 August, 2011

How to Destroy Taobao

I've had a few e-mails in recent times asking for a little help with the nefarious and nebulous depths of the mighty Taobao.  If you're a native Chinese speaker - see you in the next article.  If, like me, your ability to read Chinese could best be described as "sub-optimal", then I invite you to come with me...

For those of you who haven't previously considered Taobao, it's one of the world's largest electronic trading areas (which The Economist recently quoted as being the largest), and is massively competitive for most products.  When it comes to tea, it's excellent for buying cakes from recent years, where the supply is not tightly constrained.  For rarer cakes, such as older cakes (> 5 years age) and limited-run modern cakes (Xizihao, etc.), the prices are less competitive, because very few vendors stock the products, and they can charge what they like.  However, if, like me, you buy a lot of young tea, then Taobao is ace.

Taobao is also protected by a piece of genius that has arisen out of the Chinese culture of "cash on delivery"; i.e.,  Mainland Chinese are, to a large extent, allergic to debt and credit cards (which is a healthy trait observed by several other east-Asian nations).  Payment tends to be expected only once the goods have been received and examined, and Taobao supports this via "Alipay", which is a payment system associated with Taobao in the same way that Paypal is associated with eBay.  The cunning difference is that Alipay holds funds for the products in escrow, and only releases them to the seller once the goods have been received by the buyer.  This helps to cut down on sharp practice, and gives the buyer confidence that they'll receive the goods they want, in decent condition.  While we dirty Westerners will be buying through an agent (I use the slick and reliable Taobaofocus.com), whom we pay using Paypal and so will not directly have to interact with Alipay, the existence of the system causes the seller of the pu'ercha to obey the rules.  It seems to work, very well.

Let's kick off with a search for an eminently Taobao'able purchase, something from Douji: the "Yisheng" cake.  The first thing we need to realise is that Taobao operates (unsurprisingly) using simplified Chinese, and so we'll need to find the appropriate characters for the cake we require.

Happily, Babelcarp.org makes this easy:

Taobao Buying

In the above, I have asked the 'Carp for the characters for "Yisheng".  Next, we simply go to the main Taobao.com page, and enter the characters into the search box:

Taobao Buying

Like all Chinese web-pages, Taobao looks a mess.  It's utterly chaotic, which makes it daunting for we, the laowei [dirty foreigners]:

Taobao Buying

Perhaps your browser is asking you if you'd like to translate the page at this stage.  I'm using the entirely delightful Google Chrome browser (as a once-dedicated Firefox user), which offers us just this opportunity, as you can see from the bar at the very top of the display.  However, try not to be tempted for now, because it messes up the page even more.  (You could always open a parallel copy of the page in another tab, and allow Google to translate that copy, so as not to disturb your browsing.)

From the initial search result shown above, we already have some confidence that we've found the right page, because we have some hits showing, among other things, pu'ercha cakes - here, the lovely red "Yisheng" from 2005, at a good price of 380 RMB.

Under the search bar, we can see some characters that are telling us we have 177 hits for our search (shown in bright orange/red).

The matrix of blue characters beneath allows us to refine our search into one of the various areas of Taobao.  Burn the following into the backs of your retinas:

Taobao Buying

...because it is the subsection for snacks / nuts / tea-leaves / local specialities.  We can see that there are just ten hits in this subsection.

Let's pause for a temporary diversion.  Suppose that I wanted a translation of the phrase in blue, to get an idea of what it is that I am clicking.  Chances are, this phrase isn't tea-related (it's a link on an eBay-like website, after all), and so Babelcarp can't help us.  In such cases, I often turn to Nciku.com:

Taobao Buying

Nciku, despite its bloody awful name, is a very useful site.  You can paste in your Chinese characters in the usual place, and it will do a good job of translating them.  However, the matrix to the right of the search box allows you to draw your character, which I have used on many occasions to determine what is written on my cakes' wrappers, when my dear wife isn't available.  (I'm hoping that, one day, my son will be able to translate for me.)

Nciku is also good for learning Chinese, because there are plenty of structured learning quizzes, etc.  

So, supposing I copied over the blue label from before:

Taobao Buying

...and so we learn that the Taobao subsection that contains 10 "Yisheng" hits is indeed snacks / nuts / tea-leaves / local specialities.

Clicking that blue link refines our Taobao search, and shows us what's on offer:

Taobao Buying

So far, so... good?  We appear to have one Yisheng cake (RMB 380, the Douji version, not the "Yisheng Tea Co." version), and a bunch of lesser tea-related substances.

What does all of that Chinese text in the description of the cake mean?  Well, it's probably tea-related (being the description of a pu'ercha cake), so let's go back to the mighty 'Carp...

Taobao Buying

Booyeah.  Babelcarp has managed a full translation of this one, which is great.  Occasionally, an "unknown" character will sneak into a description that lies outside Babelcarp's considerable vocabulary; it is a tea-related dictionary, after all, and not a general translator.  

So, job done.  We like the cake, we can copy-and-paste the Taobao page into the buying page of Taobaofocus.com, and we'll have our cakes before we know it.

Before we finish, there is one other route to know about - a common screen that often appears if your search has resulted in lots of pu'ercha-related hits.  This occurs if we search for a popular cake, such as the charming Changdahao from the Yiwu Manluo Tea Co.:

Taobao Buying

Crikey - what does it all mean?  We have 195 hits, but we probably don't want to scroll through them all.  Let's look at the box that has appeared underneath the orange search box:

Taobao Buying

By now, we are confident in our ability to pop each of these into Nciku.com and obtain a translation.  However, to save time: the top row allows us to narrow our search by brand.  Here, we can choose Zhongcha (i.e., CNNP-styled cakes), Dayi, Changdahao, etc.  I tend not to bother with this.

The second row is more useful: it allows us to pick shengpu or shupu.  I always pick the former.

The third row refines our search by age, if we have a particular year in mind.  It often pays to search one age bracket above and below the target bracket, just in case there is a labelling mix-up.

The bottom row can be ignored, as it refers to packaging / bulk.

With all the tools at your disposal, you can now hunt bargains in confidence.  Often, you will find that Western vendors match the Taobao prices to some degree, which is a good thing - Taobao is a useful normaliser in that regard, and buying from Western vendors can be more comfortable.

When using an agent, such as Taobaofocus.com, I invite you to consider my previous article concerning shipping.  SAL is the usual option for me, given the substantial margin between that and other other options (as shown in the article).


Olivier said...

Yeah the principal problem of taobao is not how to use the website (if you dont read one word of chinese you can just ask any chinese friend to help you)... but more how to deal with the vendor and to be sure about what you order...

Taobao is a good image of China, and is totally full of fake products (including obviously teas, especially known ones), and for puerh also so often poorly stored or damaged by a bad wet storage...

I am using taobao everyday (but not for tea!), and have continually problems with sellers, wrong products, fake products, etc, etc...
(Hopefully you can refuse the products without to have to pay it... at least for the product you can judge with your eyes...)

I tried several times for fun to buy some teas I know well on taobao to see... was for 95% a bad experience (fake tea or badly stored)...

Maybe you ll be more lucky ;)

Anonymous said...

Thank You.

Very informative...and made me smile: laowei.....does it really include the 'dirty' bit... :-)

Not sure I can trust myself to open up a whole new avenue of tea purchasing...


Brian H said...

This is also an excellent translation site.


Lew Perin said...

Hobbes: Thanks very much for the Babelcarp plug. And, more importantly, thanks for the carefully done step-by-step how-to that might even convince me to take the Taobao plunge!

Anonymous: At a rock-bottom level of literalness, “laowai” means “old foreigner”. At a less literal, but usually more germane level, you can substitute “honored” for “old”. Here it’s a euphemism, and, as we all know, euphemisms are often used with little relation to the speaker’s inner feelings, indeed, often with sarcasm or contempt. So it depends on context.

flo said...

With babelcarp + google translate/nciku + taobaofocus (the least expensive regarding fees & fluid new interface), taobao is not a mysterious area to explore and buy from.

It is right that some online vendors (like chinachadao, in particuler for douji) are just as interesting : similar prices and no fees. But w taobao dealers (check they are authorized dealers &/or give contact and location, any vendor be it on taobao or else who anonymizes himself or hides anything like his prices is by definition to stay away from), you often find references you may not find on a western online market.

taobao is a good place to check prices : overage price is close to domestic offline retail pricing, maybe a bit higher (but given the yuan rate the difference is not much for us). Of course some vendors on taobao tend to push crazy pricing for the new trendy brand with gorgeous wrappers -but like IRL you can just ...not buy if "too expensive to be true".

Lew, babelcarp is great ! you have certainly been thanked a billion times for creating it, so this is one more "thank you" :))

Hobbes said...

Thanks, all, for the comments.

Dear Olivier,

It sounds as if you've had a terrible time with Taobao. I must say, mine is completely the opposite: I have bought a lot of tea, but had no unintentional fakes (one knowingly!), and very good service.

As I wrote in the article, perhaps this is because I don't buy old, expensive cakes via Taobao, and perhaps because I operate through an agent (Taobaofocus.com), which takes away any difficulty of interacting with vendors: one just copies-and-pastes the product URLs into their website, and it orders for you. Better luck next time!

All the best,


Olivier said...

Dear Hobbes,

I found fake products on non-expensive cakes too, like relatively recent productions of Fengqing, Xiaguan (FT), Haiwan, Mengku, Dadugang, from "serious" taobao sellers. I really think that in general its not really intentional from the seller, just they dont know enough what they sell and dont care enough about selling copy (because anyway most of the clients of these kind of tea wont be able to make the difference between the original and the copy)...

Outside tea, where I have a more big taobao experience, I get (lots!) of fake 304 stainless steel items, fake copper, fake technic plastics items, fake chemical products, fake Spanish olive oil, fake belgium beer, fake french wine, etc...
(All the time from real recorded business, after several exchanges with the seller... and usually with money back at the end, except when you already use/open the product... not good for tea or belgium beer ;) )

But well I dont feel things are better in lots of chinese real shop than on taobao (anyway so many shops in china buy their stocks on the same taobao shops...).

Good Chinese shopping ;)

Anonymous said...


encouraged by your blog I have made a number of Taobao purchases and I'm generally happy. However I once got a tong of clearly fake 801 7542 with original wrapping neifei etc. But I knew from the outset that something was odd because the price was only 25 yuan iirc.
Another thing I found the taobaofocus service standard erratic on various occasions. And they're definitely no good at packaging stuff...



David Lau said...

Tao Bao is a one stop shop for pretty much anything now. I have friends who regularly shop on the site to buy less important inventory. For example, socks for a clothing line.

The daughter of a tea farmer in Anxi once told me that she would never buy tea on Tao Bao, but then proceeded to tell me that she has multiple friends who make quite a comfortable living strictly selling tea on the website. Like Shanghai, like most of China, Tao Bao is a contradiction.

Anonymous said...

Good afternoon.How taobaofocus send the products by Sal because when i try do choose the shipment the Sal option doesnt appear.

Hobbes said...

Dear Anonymous,

The shipping options are up to the seller, and it may be that some don't offer SAL. It's a good-value choice, if the choice is available. Good luck with your shopping!



Chris said...

Thank you for this post! I was trying to figure out a way to try this site however I always failed. Do you have any recommendations on some Puerhs to try? or maybe some companies I could search for?