Agents help foreigners navigate Taobao

CHINA - Many people around the globe agree China's principal shopping website Taobao is very useful - yet not at all foreigner-friendly.

No problem. Foreigners don't have to actually use Taobao to, well, use Taobao.

One thing the vast variety of Taobao products proves - think deer placenta, vanilla cookies for hermit crabs and helicopters - is supply accompanies demand.

An entire sector of third-party Taobao agents has developed to abet foreigners aspiring to shop on the e-commerce site.

Agents provide language support - the website is almost entirely in Chinese but agents employ polyglots - and assistance with payments for foreigners without yuan, let alone Alipay, China's answer to PayPal, and a host of other services.

They typically charge 5 to 10 per cent of the order's cost. One of their primary purposes should be quality-assurance, says Harry Kwok, general manager for Taobao agent Obook.

"Taobao is a market that's not so regulated compared to overseas markets and has many traps by which inexperienced buyers may be scammed," Kwok says. "So you need to pay agents to help you avoid the risks."

Insider knowledge should be part of what you're paying for, Obook's operations and customer support manager Christy Li says.

Ideally, such amenities as translation should be free, Kwok says. And after commissions customers should still get better deals than they would on international sites such as eBay.

"EBay provides a direct platform to seller and buyer without third-party inspections before shipping," Li says. "There's no immediate assistance in case of damage or mistakes. But Taobao agents provide assistance without delay."

The range of products sold on Taobao sets the company apart from other shopping websites such as eBay, manager Alan Smith says.

"Some items you can buy on Taobao but not eBay," he says.

More than 90 per cent of his company's customers come from Europe, the United States and Asia.

Kwok says about 35 per cent of Obook's clients hail from Southeast Asia, while about 30 per cent are from the US and Canada, and 20 per cent are from Europe.

Foreigners are generally less circumspect and conscious of the prospective hazards of the relatively unregulated site, agents point out.

"Don't judge the seller or product from simple feedback," Smith suggests. "Do small sample orders to test before committing to large orders."

Buyers should study sellers' reputations, says Lai Xin, co-founder of the Singapore-based Taobao ranks merchant levels, discloses sales volumes and includes customer feedback.

That said, some vendors manipulate these metrics by, for instance, buying their own wares to inflate their numbers.

"Generally, sellers with higher levels and better sales volumes would be more reliable," Lai says. "If there's any uncertainty before we order, we contact the vendor to avoid disputes."

Smith says the agents are shields against Taobao's buyer-beware nature.

"You get what you pay for," he says.

"Don't believe it when you see extremely cheap items. They're either fake or of poor quality. Read item descriptions carefully to detect tricks. And learn from shops' ratings and customer comments. This can give you a general idea."

Insiders point to industry transformations. Rates are dropping in concert with increased professionalism, competitiveness and value-added services.

"Frankly, we Taobao agents need to improve," Lai says. "We need to work more as agents and less as retailers."

But the number of agencies is shrinking, as the big fish commandeer the pond.

"The smaller agencies are fading due to increasing competition," Kwok says. "The remaining agents normally offer premium services and enjoy a stable customer base."

Agents argue they'd remain relevant if Taobao started providing some of their primary functions, such as translation capabilities and payment methods.

A translation feature for most Southeast Asian languages became available on Taobao last fall. (The region incidentally seems to be the area outside mainland China where most international Taobao purchases are made.)

Li believes it's unlikely Taobao will match agents' services in the foreseeable future.

"Overcoming language and payment barriers are only some of many services agencies offer," she says.

And Lai says agencies will react if the site adapts.

"We'd respond to site changes by focusing on strengths in providing more professional and efficient service," Lai says.

"We'd enhance payment options, translation and convenience. We'd also consider promotions and updates. In the future, certified agents may partner with the online platforms to further lower transaction risks and raise overall efficiency."

"Taobao agencies' future lies in operating as a China portal, rather than a simple agency," he says.