Twenty-four-hour Taobao – A Self Experiment


By staff reporter VERENA MENZEL


I admit it! I am not a huge fan of online shopping. Back home in Germany, my sole forays into online shopping consisted of ordering a few new books on Amazon and some old ones on eBay. But buying clothes online without trying them on? Never. Or groceries? No way.


But, having lived in China since 2011, the daily armada I witness of express parcel-carriers delivering online shopping items reminds me that I am somehow “different” when it comes to online-shopping. A day without buying anything online seems unlikely, if not impossible, in China, and the thrill of daily digital shopping can start as early as the morning subway commute to work.



Taobao is a name more or less synonymous with the virtual shopping universe on the Chinese web. China’s biggest C2C shopping platform and pioneer, has everything you might possibly imagine, or so Chinese friends tell me. Its patrons hence refer to the platform as “almighty Taobao.”


I, however, remain unconvinced. So what do you buy on this “Taobao,” I want to know. A list promptly ensues: clothes, electrical and electronic devices, cosmetics, eatables, pregnancy products, pharmaceuticals, household items, flowers, frozen food, visa services, imported products… Okay, I get the picture.


But I have a trump card: “What about shoes?” I ask triumphantly. “What if they don’t fit?” My Chinese friend smiles knowingly as she takes out her smart phone and shows me the list on it of her personal measurements: shoulder width, length of arms and legs, the three vital statistics of bust, waist, and hips – all precisely noted. You need only compare this online-shopping “fingerprint” with the description of the product you are interested in and the job is done, she explains. And, if the worst comes to the worst, she adds, there is always the Taobao chat program “Wang Wang,” whereby a buyer can contact the Taobao seller within seconds and clarify any remaining questions. I see.


I wonder what a day in the Taobao universe might look and feel like, and so take the bold decision to conduct a self-experiment: 24-hour Taobao! Let’s see what “Taobao Wang,” the “net to fish for treasures,” as it literally translates from the Chinese, has to offer in the hypothetical organization of an entire day, from breakfast till dinner, with Taobao as a companion. The bet is on!


From Breakfast to Facekinis


I opened the homepage. First of all, I needed breakfast, German style of course. This should be a mere warm-up exercise for Taobao, right?


Since the company was founded in 2003, it has steadily expanded. The founder Jack Ma (Ma Yun) has become an Internet icon in China. When, at the beginning of the new century, eBay entered the Chinese market, Ma decided to offer a Chinese alternative. He hence founded Taobao for private vendors to sell new and second-hand products that offers the choice between an auction and a direct purchase-option.


Clever marketing and the site’s personal touch and design, paired with adaptations of site functions that fit Chinese users’ preferences, along with a daring investment strategy, have paved the way for the unexpected victory of Ma and his team over U.S. Internet-giant eBay. In 2006, eBay announced its retreat from the Chinese market. China’s David thus defeated America’s Goliath. But can Taobao really deliver a typical German breakfast to start my day?


I keyed “German breakfast” in Chinese characters in the input field. Bingo! From a seemingly endless list of German muesli variants and cereals I selected a Taobao shop that offers typical German black bread. Two 250 gram packages of “fitness bread” for RMB 43 – around € 5.80, delivery included. For an extra RMB 20 I added a pot of German brand “Schwartau Extra” cherry-jam. That’s it – mission accomplished, breakfast is on the way. Let’s go on to the next challenge.


According to available statistics, Taobao offers more than 800 million products relating to all areas of daily life. In 2014, an average 50,000 changed hands every minute (!). Different from eBay, auctions account for only a fraction of all private Taobao online-vendors’ sales. The biggest slice of the product pie is that of goods sold at a fixed price.


November 11, the day China’s online vendors hype as China’s yearly “shopping carnival,” is the peak of the sales scale. On this date in 2015, products worth RMB one billion (around € 130 million) changed hands over Taobao’s virtual store counters in just 12 seconds. A takings check at the end of the day showed the figure of RMB 15.9 billion – 122-fold that at start of play.


But back to my self-experiment: The relentless Beijing summer heat takes its toll; I can feel it scorching my skin during my morning trudge to the office. I consequently declared sun protection as task two of my Taobao challenge.


A pretty parasol is one possible solution, as carrying one in China is still en vogue. But that would be too easy, I guess. Instead, I took a fancy to one of those head-and-face style swimming caps devised by Chinese “Dama,” Chinese matrons from Qingdao keen to avoid getting a sun tan. They christened their polyester-creation the “facekini,” whose extreme look has brought it international media fame.


In 2014 this phenomenon entered even French fashion circles, when models wearing these facekinis took part in a photo shoot for the French CR Fashion Book magazine. So please, I want one of these unique Chinese fashion items. Give me some of this colorful polyester-glamour! 



November 11 is hyped as China’s yearly “shopping carnival” by online vendors.


I searched via keyword “facekini” and again: a hit! After only a couple of clicks I find a vendor offering these seaside balaclavas that, with only small slits for the mouth, nose and eyes, look more like an accessory for sun-sensitive bank robbers than beach holiday wear. The shop offers facekinis in all sizes, colors, and designs. I vacillated between a Beijing opera mask and the Spiderman look. However, I eventually went for a model in classic light blue, like that in the summer edition of CR Fashion Book in 2014. Check. Another task successfully completed.


A Trusty Virtual Space


My Taobao registration made me one of Taobao’s more than 500 million registered users. In the international Alexa ranking, Taobao ranks 12th of all websites with the most traffic worldwide. Nationally, Taobao comes four places below Chinese search engine Baidu, and eight below the messenger platform Tencent QQ.


A couple more mouse-clicks took me to the next item on the daily agenda – lunch. Can Taobao also get me something for lunch? Yes it can! Upon keying in the Chinese for “food” in the Taobao search engine you entered a crazy gourmet paradise whose wonders range from local Chinese snacks, international ingredients, and health-food like sea-cucumber or goji-berries to regular instant pizza, or a frozen variant of the filled Chinese steamed buns called Baozi. That no one goes hungry in the Taobao land of milk and honey is indisputable.


With a little resolve, I found myself a special set lunch – the “president menu” – which comprises six steamed buns filled with pork and scallions paired with mustard-greens and fried pork liver. This is exactly the dish that, according to media reports, China’s president Xi Jinping ordered in December 2013 during a spontaneous drop in at a traditional Beijing dumpling restaurant in the heart of the capital. I found a Taobao shop that offers nationwide delivery of a deep-frozen version of the dish. So Taobao is able to serve a presidential meal for lunch, which clocks up further credit for this platform.


Security is definitely an important factor in ensuring the success of an Internet platform like Taobao. Will what I actually receive fit the product description? Will delivery be on time? Is there someone I can talk to if I have any complaints? And, if I am not satisfied, how do I get my money back?


Trust and credibility play a vital role in the success of online deals, especially in China, with its host of online-vendors selling fake products and shop-owners involved in shady business. This is something that the creators of Taobao were all too aware of when they created the platform. Consequently, the Taobao team established from the word go an online-pay system called Alipay, a trust bank similar to PayPal, which holds all monies until both buyer and seller confirm the successful transaction.


What’s more, to provide an element of security even before closing a deal, Taobao has created a sophisticated valuation system that enables buyer and seller to assess one another through a detailed catalogue of criteria, the results of which are there for all customers to see. They can also see at a glance how long a user has been buying or selling on Taobao.


Not to be forgotten, of course, is the valuation function applicable to every single product. Comments from past customers are also there for anyone strolling through a virtual Taobao shop to see and bear in mind. However, the knightly accolade of every Taobao seller is undoubtedly the comment that the buyer shares, along with a selfie or self-made photo of his “Taobao treasure.” Most of the latter are taken in the buyers’ living room at home, which adds maximum authenticity to the product review.



The “facekini” that swept French fashion circles takes China by storm thanks to “almighty Taobao.”


As regards the “facekini,” my purchase decision was strongly influenced by the many wonderful private selfies taken by the male and female swimmers of all ages from all parts of China wearing the head-and-face swimming-cap. Taobao photo-comments offer valuable insights into the living environment of Taobao users, some of which are unintentionally comical.


Rent a Boyfriend! Really?


But now, it’s time to plan my afternoon and evening. Maybe I should take a short nap in the office after my canteen lunch? For the unbeatable price of RMB 35 (€ 4.70) Taobao offers a stylish, self-inflatable polyester couch, ready to use in eight to 10 seconds. It is particularly popular among attendees around China of open-air music festivals. Maybe I should combine it with a six-pack of the cult orange-lemonade brand “Arctic Ocean” (Beibingyang) in the traditional retro-glass bottle, priced at just RMB 33, around € 4.50, delivery included.


And to ensure a genuine whoosh of gas upon opening one I should buy the trendy Suarez bottle opener, invented by a canny Chinese businessman after the biting incident in a match during the 2014 world cup involving Uruguayan soccer player Luis Suarez and Giorgio Chiellini of the national Italian team. It was wildly popular only a few days after this scandalous incident on the football field.


I have to admit that, so far, Taobao has put up a good show, and inwardly give it a nod of respect. But my evening entertainment could be a tough nut to crack. Let’s see how you deal with this, dearest Taobao!


I have read several times in past media reports of unmarried Chinese women who, as preparation for the big Chinese Spring Festival family reunion, rent temporary boyfriends on Taobao. These rent-a-beaux play the role of loving prospective son-in-law over the holidays, the point of the exercise to fend off questions relating to matrimony from solicitous relatives and friends. It’s the perfect way to avoid these annoying enquiries from family members, friends, neighbors and other barely known people on visits to the old home.


I also have no wish to spend the end of my Taobao-day as sole singleton among my friends. So now, Taobao is your chance to show your almightiness!


I keyed “rent a boyfriend” in Chinese characters into the Taobao search engine. The result: no matches. I gave it another try with the Chinese word for “companion.” This time some recommendations popped up: The intelligent domestic robot “Future Night Smart,” remote-controlled by app, which not only sings, dances, and realistically approximates human motion patterns, but is also capable of remotely controlling many home appliances and protecting your home from burglars. The price: RMB 2,800, around € 380. However, this is not exactly what I had in mind for a romantic evening for two.


So I kept browsing. But nor are the other “companions” Taobao recommends – a high-tech smart phone-stand with integrated webcam for smooth video-chats – perfect for keeping in contact with loved ones, a premium-package of discounted senior-diapers, or an oversized cuddly toy hippo – terribly tempting.



From German style breakfast to sea-cucumber, Taobao proves to be a gourmet paradise.


I clicked forward a few pages and finally found a slightly more “humanistic” offer, although the companions available are not real-life but online ones: The shop provides male and female counterparts for romantic conversations, like a virtual version of holding hands via text or voice-messages, phone calls or chat-sessions. The service ranges from a 30-minute unburden-your-heart talk (RMB 5 or 70 cents) to a virtual one-month relationship (RMB 600, € 81). The “Golden Medal All Inclusive Week” promises an even deeper exchange for RMB 300, € 41, but does not carry a detailed product description.


You should avoid sensitive topics with your rented pal, the vendor warns potential clients. Besides, these employees have the right to reject video-calls as they see fit. Furthermore, the provider advises making any actual contact with the rented boy- or girlfriend through means other than the platform. Should such advice be taken, the platform washes its hands of any responsibility for financial losses as a result of demands for cash-filled red envelopes (hongbao), or of an actual offline relationship that develops from an online one.


However, on clicking the comment section for this product, I found: zero entries. Not a good sign!


Therefore, I decided to give Taobao one last chance, and started browsing for a life-size cardboard stand-up model of Christiano Ronaldo as a substitute for a rented boyfriend. But all I could find is a plastic inflatable David Beckham doll. In the end, I plumped for the cuddly toy hippo. And I also found a self-heating outdoor-survival-version of the classic Chinese dish Kung Pao Chicken as a substitute for the originally planned candle-lit-dinner. Sometimes a girl has to make compromises.


I don’t want to be a whinger or overcritical. So my conclusion after this theoretical 24-hour self-experiment: Taobao is nearly almighty, and for good reasons the most popular shopping-tool of a whole generation of Chinese youth. There is almost nothing you won’t find on this mega-platform, which offers a good mixture of eBay and Amazon features. Between you and me, in the end I did order a pair of shoes. And if they don’t fit, I’ll simply send them back.