Way back in 2006, I was living in Xi’an. My teammate decided she wanted to buy an oven that was big enough to bake a turkey. Baking is not a traditional Chinese food preparation method, so almost no apartments have built in ovens. The option you do have is basically a toaster oven, in varying sizes. Some of them are small (like toaster ovens in the U.S.) and some of them are large enough for a turkey. To find such an oven, the two of us set out to scour the stores. We checked several different stores, and then had to find some sort of shelving unit large enough for the oven which meant returning to one of the stores we’d checked for an oven. We found the oven and shelf, fit them into a taxi (actually, we might have had two make two trips since we bought two big items from two different stores). Then we dragged those big boxes from the school gate up to the apartment. We got it done, but it was a little stressful.
When I arrived in Beijing last fall, I was in the market for an oven. I did look at a couple of stores as I was getting the lay of the shopping land, but didn’t settle on anything. I had read about the possibility of online shopping, so I started searching there. I found one that looked suitable for a reasonable price. I could pay cash when it was delivered (since I hadn’t figured out any other options, yet). I ordered it on a Saturday afternoon about 3pm. It was delivered to my door at about 10pm that evening, where I turned over cash to the delivery man. I couldn’t believe how easy it was.
When I left China in 2008, online shopping was not really an option. There might have been a few stores available, but the people who actually used them were few and far between. I asked my students if it was possible and their reactions were along the lines of “why would you want to do that?”, “but you can’t see what you’re buying,” and “it isn’t safe.”
All of that has changed. I am sure that there are still many people, especially in smaller places that hold such attitudes. But it seems fair to say that the average Beijinger has no qualms about buying online. You can now count me as an average Beijinger, because learning to shop online makes my life much easier. I did have to (and probably still am) learn how to shop online in China, because it is not exactly the same as in the U.S.
The biggest challenge is language. Although some sites have some of the interface in English, most of the item descriptions are in Chinese only, and you get the best search results if you search in Chinese. This is a disadvantage to shopping online. Instead of wandering around a store until you find what you need, you do have to figure out its name. I usually start with the dictionary, but it doesn’t always yield the specific item I’m looking for. Sometimes I search in English to figure out what the item might be called and then search in Chinese to get more options. Sometimes I use a more general term and then browse through a lot of photos. Sometimes the dictionary offers several options and I try all of them until I find what I’m looking for.
Then there is the tendency to overload the headings with what are apparently multiple names for the same thing (probably to increase search results). Some scissors I ordered recently were called “办公剪刀 大AA剪刀 328剪刀 办公用剪刀 手工剪刀 便宜剪刀” which translates to “office scissors big AA scissors 328 scissors office use scissors handwork scissors cheap scissors.” All I want to know is that they are scissors! The item listings tend to be overly verbose as well (at least for a second language learner). Sometimes there are even pictures to demonstrate to you how useful this item is (I especially notice this with Western cooking items). I look for the numbers and lists which usually contain the most useful information. Of course, they are all is kilograms and centimeters, so sometimes I have to use an online converter to help me get my head around how large an item this is. Once I didn’t do this and my bag of laundry soap was about twice as big as I was expecting (I’m set on laundry soap for a long time).
So far, I stick to some of the big sites: Amazon, JD.com, and Taobao. Amazon.cn is basically what you would expect, although with locally available products. They also have an option for using global Amazon where you can order some items from the Amazon.com (US) site and they take care of shipping to China. It says you do have to pay the customs fees, but it isn’t clear on what those might be, so I haven’t felt desperate enough to use it yet. Some of the things I’ve bought from them: air purifiers, children’s books in Chinese, fans, an umbrella, laundry soap, and craft supplies. Amazon accepts foreign credit cards, and for some things you can pay cash on delivery. JD.com started as an electronics store, but it has expanded to carry a little of everything. Some of the things I have bought there include an oven, paper shredder, waffle maker, crock pot, cookie cutters, humidifier, ritz crackers, and peanut butter. JD doesn’t accept foreign credit cards, so I have to make sure to select items that can be paid for with cash on delivery. In Beijing, most items come a day or two after ordering.
Once I was comfortable with those two sites, I finally figured out how to use what might be the most common site: Taobao. The hardest part was figuring out that I could connect alipay (sort of like paypal) to a foreign credit card. Taobao is sort of like Ebay or Etsy crossed with Amazon crossed with Wal-mart. Taobao is lots of little individual shops (like Ebay and Etsy) selling through one big site. You can really find almost anything (like Amazon), but many of the items are not of high quality (like Wal-mart). I don’t think that I would use it for anything expensive, but it is great for smaller things. So far I’ve mostly bought craft supplies for English camps. I know a lot of people who buy food items from Taobao because they can be a bit cheaper and you the selection is wider than a store; I’m planning on doing more of that in upcoming months. I’ve also heard you can find larger size shoes, although you don’t know for sure if they will fit until they arrive, and returns are either not possible or a major pain.
The final difference is delivery method. Most packages come via kuaidi (delivery services). If it is a cash on delivery order they definitely call to make sure you will be home and if you won’t be home will come another time. If it isn’t cash on delivery they don’t always call first. If I’m not at home, then some of the services leave packages in a special set of larger mailboxes that send you a text message with a password to open the box and retrieve your package. Some will leave the package at the apartment office, but usually the kuaidi calls me to tell me I have to call the office and say it is okay. One of the first times this happened, I didn’t have the office number in my phone and the delivery guy was trying to give it to me by quickly spouting the number (in Chinese) to me. I was walking and couldn’t write it down (and probably wouldn’t even remember it in English). He didn’t seem to understand the problem and was getting frustrated with me. It seemed like he was in the office already, so I asked him to just give his phone to the office employee so I could tell them it was okay. That worked, and eventually I did get the number saved in my phone so I can call when I am out and about. Regardless of my occasional frustration it is an overall amazingly efficient system. I’m enjoying the shopping possibilities!