For love - and luxury

For love - and luxury

It's easier than ever to buy overseas items, but that's not the real reason behind the booming ranks of China's haitao consumers.

Liu Xin, 32, a Beijing local, has been buying products for her child from overseas websites since 2011.

She has bought everything from milk powder, a stroller, and a car baby seat to feeding bottles and body lotions, all of which have been delivered to her doorstep through international shipping.

"Every mom around me knows how to shop from overseas websites for their babies. It is now a must-have life skill," she says.

Liu is one of millions of Chinese who buy products from overseas online platforms and have them delivered to their Chinese addresses.

The practice of buying overseas products is so popular it has earned the label haitao, which literally means "ocean search" in Chinese.

In 2013, China had around 18 million haitao consumers who made transactions worth some 80 billion yuan (S$17.03 billion) from foreign websites in 2013, up from 10 billion yuan in 2010, according to figures from Analysys International, a Beijing-based Internet consultancy. And the value of haitao transactions is expected to exceed 120 billion yuan this year.

This year, Chinese consumers have also participated in major Western shopping sprees, including Black Friday and Christmas sales, in large numbers.

The traditional method would be for Chinese consumers to place their orders on foreign websites, pay in the store's local currency and have the products shipped to a temporary address within the country where the store is based.

So usually before shopping, Chinese consumers would register with an express delivery company to be allocated with a foreign address.

Then the express company would take responsibility for clearing the goods through the Chinese customs and hand them over to a Chinese delivery company.

However, major high-end retailers including Macy's, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, and Bloomingdale's in the United States have teamed up with China's largest online payment solution provider - Alipay, the e-payment arm of the Alibaba Group, and Chinese shoppers can now buy goods directly in yuan through the Alipay payment platform and take advantage of its direct shipment service.

Wang Xiaoying, 29, another haitao shopper from Beijing, has just purchased a Michael Kors overcoat from Macy's online store.

"My coat arrived in about 10 days. The international shipment was only 33 yuan through the Alipay platform," she says.

"As I proceeded to the checkout on Macy's online store, the webpage automatically linked me to Alipay. Then I logged onto my Alipay account, filled in my Chinese address, and confirmed the payment. The payment automatically added the shipping cost and the estimated tariff. It's that easy."

Lin Wenbin, an e-commerce analyst with Analysys International, says the main problem now is the language barrier.

"Comparing product descriptions, filling in credit cards information in a foreign language still put off many consumers," says Lin.

Retailers keen to attract Chinese shoppers are looking at ways to overcome this barrier.

Since Black Friday, the traditional sales day after Thanksgiving in the United States, for instance, Amazon China unveiled "overseas sales" on, where Chinese shoppers can grab deals through a Chinese-language interface, but their orders are procured directly from Amazon US suppliers without any middlemen.

Lin said that major Western shopping sprees such as Black Friday and the Christmas sales have just started gaining the attention of Chinese mass online shoppers.

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