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Online retailers has always had the competitive advantage against traditional brick-and-mortar establishments in terms of lower operational costs, which translates to lower retail prices for customers. This applies to most products from foodstuff to furniture. As the marketing adage goes,the more one shops, the more one saves, so where does one start shopping for the perfect appointments for the apartment?
Since China is the top furniture exporter in the world, pushing out 41% of the world’s furniture exports at a value of US$ 98.7 Billion (http://www.worldsrichestcountries.com/top-furniture-exporters.html) in 2015, it would be a logical choice to head to a China-based web portal. The mere mention of Chinese online retailers would bring to mind, the largest and most pervasive, AliBaba and TaoBao. Even if you do not read Chinese or have problems with shipping, there are numerous TaoBao agent sites that facilitate shopping and transactions with TaoBao on your behalf to smooth out the experience.
According to an online survey done in early 2016, 26% of households in Singapore opted to purchase their furniture from TaoBao, a marked increase from 12% in the previous year. The reasons for this trend are compelling: lower prices, wider choice and convenience.
At TaoBao, there are 1.4 million vendors to browse and get lost among. It would be virtually impossible not to find anything that catches the eye, however specific one’s preference might be. There are S$2,000 Herman Miller office chairs and ones that cost S$12. There are stylish 1960s era egg chairs at S$200 and an Eames-inspired lounge chair going for under S$40.
The choice, the sheer variety and prices can be daunting for many, but take note of the following tips and any trip to the virtual mall will be a rewarding one.
Trust, is a fragile thing. The business world is one filled with cannibalistic canines that won’t balk at the taste of human flesh or the smell of freshly minted dollar notes. In the anonymous online realm, trust is gained by establishing an online personality and through a system of ratings, the entity develops a personality in the one area that matters - how honest or credible it is.
On TaoBao, buyer feedback left for a vendor helps establish them as a legit business and not a fly-by-night operation. These ratings have four levels Heart, Diamond, Blue Crown and Gold Crown. These levels denote the size of the business according to number of items it has sold, with Heart being the lowest tier. These tiers are further subdivided into number of the Heart, Diamond, Blue Crown and Gold Crown icons that the vendor is awarded. For example, a shop that has just set up a TaoBao account will have no Hearts on its profile; after selling four to 10 items, it will have one heart. When it has sold 151 to 250 items, it will be awarded five Hearts. Similarly, the Diamond tier starts at 251 items sold and ends at 10,000 items, Blue Crown is between 10,001 and 500,000, and Gold Crowns are awarded from 500,001 sales to more than 1,000,000. As with a regular physical business, it takes time and precedence to build up credibility.
For more qualitative opinions, past buyers can also leave comments with pictures. Judge a seller by these comments in conjunction with its reputation rating, as newer stores would naturally have a lower score. Conversely, an established business may have a high reputation score, but a review of its recent buyer reviews will reveal if its standards have slipped or have been maintained.
Contact the seller
When in doubt, speak to the vendor directly. An established business should have a decent level of customer service. Communication is key when navigating issues like warranty and returns policies or just questions on availability. The TaoBao site incorporates an instant messenger called “Wang Wang”, for buyers to speak with sellers in real time. However, be prepared that most sellers will be writing in Chinese.
Occasionally, mistakes do happen and an item that was ordered can turn out to be different from what is received. In other rare cases, items could have been damaged during delivery. Although there are no established warranty practices, store-specific policies usually strive to rectify the problem immediately. This prompt service is motivated by the stiff competition between sellers and the severe repercussions to business that results from negative feedback or rating.
Being a primarily China-based online retail outlet, the medium of communication is standard Mandarin. Do have a dictionary on hand to sort out any miscommunication. To bypass the communication barrier totally, there are various sites such as 65daigo.com and ezbuy.com that allows you to browse the selection of items on TaoBao in English and can even arrange for shipping to your destination.
The vendors on TaoBao are wholesalers. Arranging for shipping is a separate cost and a separate provision. It is best to choose a freight forwarder that has an office at your home location for easier communication and assistance. Be aware of any customs fees, duties and suitable packaging, which a local freight forwarder will be able to advise you.
Online shopping opens up a new world of retail where physical space and distance no longer matter. It is a new dimension to explore and with some street smartness and experience, shopping at TaoBao doesn’t have to be a scary experience.