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In many Western European countries, the baby foods industry receives government subsidies. A can of Nutrilon milk powder costs only 10 euros in Amsterdam, the Dutch capital. Together with fees and tariffs, the same can will cost RMB 160 for a concerned mother in China. "I earn about RMB 30 per can, which is pretty good," Fang admits.

"There are many people who do what I do in the Netherlands and Germany. The most successful earn tens of thousands of yuan per month."

In order to attract Chinese consumers, a number of foreign shopping websites have launched Chinese-language versions and offer the choice of delivery companies such as Alipay and Direct Mail whose services reach the Chinese mainland.

The delivery forwarding business has in itself become a booming industry. In 2011, big express delivery companies like Global Courier and Buytong inaugurated forwarding services. "Every day we receive over 100 orders to deliver goods to China, most of which are sent to big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. The current amount of business our forwarding services division receives is nearly three times that of our express service," a salesman from Global Courier said. "Of course, as more express companies catch on to the business opportunities in the forwarding service market, competition will become more intense."

Lingering Concerns

While affordability, choice and convenience continue to attract shoppers to the online option, there has nevertheless been some domestic concern in recent times about the quality of products sold through the digital medium.

In the first half of 2011, China's entry-exit inspection and quarantine bureau randomly inspected 665 batches of unqualified imported foods and 36 batches of unqualified imported cosmetics.

"In September 2010, Similac milk powder was found to be contaminated with beetle remains. The company recalled its baby milk powder in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. The powder bought from overseas websites, however, could not be recalled," Liu Yi explains, giving a reason why she had never bought milk powder from overseas websites.

In online shopping forums, netizens complain about their experiences, which include receiving expired products owing to lengthy transport time, receiving damaged goods or having difficulty in returning goods for refund.

Many also worry about the risk of credit card fraud, pointing out that revealing sensitive personal information along with credit card details is a prerequisite to purchasing goods online.

Limited English proficiency has also led netizens to buy wrong products and be too embarrassed to return them.

Risky Bargains

Online shopping has become a hot topic of complaints, according to one Beijing consumer complaints hotline. By their very nature, online shopping websites registered overseas are outside the scope of domestic supervision. The goods are delivered directly to the purchaser and are not inspected thoroughly in quarantine: there are no product safety guarantees. If problems with the products do arise, consumers have nowhere to turn and complain to except the website itself.

According to Bai Chong'en, vice dean of the School of Economics and Management at Tsinghua University, overseas online shopping affords consumers the comfort of shopping without ever leaving their homes, and a chance to sample international product brands not available in domestic supermarkets. This is all good news for domestic consumers. But, says Bai, the online shopping craze is definitely not good news for domestic producers. Many are only just recovering from the global financial crisis and ensuing weak demand for consumption goods. Bai argues that the authorities should formulate measures to ensure local businesses are not forced out of business by having significantly higher taxes than their online competitors.

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VOL.59 NO.12 December 2010 Advertise on Site Contact Us