How to shop on Taobao

A five-stage guide to take you from Taobeginner to Taobrilliant

Time Out present a five-stage guide to take you from Taobeginner to Taobrilliant

1 Set up an account

Look for the characters 免费注册 (mianfei zhuce; ‘free registration’) at the top-left of the Taobao homepage. From here, all you need is a Chinese phone number, a password, and, if you don’t read Chinese, Google Translate to tell you what to write and where. A few clicks later, you’re officially a member.

2 Add money to your account

When it comes to making a purchase, Taobao uses Alipay, China’s version of PayPal. Connecting an Alipay account to your Chinese bank account can be a massive hassle, and makes the whole Taobao experience much less accessible. Far easier is ‘recharging’ your Alipay account the way you would your mobile phone when you run out of minutes. Here are the steps:

  • Get a 网汇E (wanghui-E), available from most convenience stores or at your local China Post Office. You’ll get a small form and the teller will explain what to fill out, but essentially all you need to input is your phone number, your name, your postcode, and the amount of money you want on your account.
  • During the process, the teller will ask you to create a six-digit PIN. 
  • After processing your paper, the teller will give you a receipt which you should hang on to.
  • Next, log onto your account. Click on the characters 我的支付宝 (wodezhifubao) next to your profile picture. This will take you to your Alipay account, which should have a total of 0.00RMB.
  • Click on the large orange icon that contains the characters 充值 (chongzhi; ‘recharge’).
  • Click on the fourth tab that says 充值码 (chongzhima; ‘recharge code’).
  • When this tab opens, select the green icon that is farthest to the right and click the orange button below.
  • The first box you need to fill out is the 14 or 18 digit code that is printed on the receipt you received earlier.
  • The box directly underneath is for the PIN you chose at the Post Office.
  • Your account should now be charged and you’re ready to go.

3 Know where to buy

With thousands of individual stores, some are bound to be dodgy, so look to the symbols. Those little hearts, flowers, diamonds and crowns aren’t just there for decoration – each one indicates the number of successful transactions that a seller has made. Generally speaking, sellers with more than four diamonds are the most reliable. Other common symbols include green hands holding a yellow bag (items are as described); hands holding the number seven (items can be returned for a full refund in seven days); and hands holding the letter E (items are authentic). Occasionally, when clicking on an item, you might find yourself on a site with a deep red background. That simply means you have entered, an offshoot of Taobao that’s exclusively a business-to-consumer marketplace, with flagship stores from most big brands.

Besides that, it is necessary to pay attention to the seller reviews and ratings – we recommend only using stores with at least 98 percent approval. If you can’t read characters and don’t feel like copy-pasting millions of individual comments into Google Translate, the simplest rule of thumb is to check out the green box. Also, look for shops that use pictures taken by the provider, rather than stock photos of ones from the product’s official website. It goes without saying you should generally avoid anything too good to be true. A ‘GENUINE LEATHER PRADA WALLET’ for 40RMB is not going to be the real deal.

4 Get chatting

Once you’ve set up your account, recharged your Alipay account and browsed around a bit, completing a purchase is relatively breezy. Before you press the big orange button, however, it’s a good idea to chat with the storeowner to ensure they have your item in stock.

If the little teardrop in the green ‘ratings’ box is blue, that means the seller is available to chat. Double-click to open a chat. Simply copy the link to the item, paste it into the chat box, and ask ‘有没有?’ (youmeiyou; ‘do you have this?’). If you have other questions about the product, this is also the place to ask.

5 The final step

You can finally click ‘Buy Now’. Select the size and colour, and press that big orange button. You will be directed to a new screen to select your shipping option from a drop down menu. The most typical is the 10RMB 快递 (kuaidi; courier delivery). If you have not already set up a shipping address, you will have to do that now.

You should then be directed to the payment screen, where you will see your account balance near the top. Once you enter your password in the box, you’re done. All you have to do now is wait for your item to arrive.

The best Taobao stores

Chinese designers
With the cost of renting a physical store proving prohibitive for young Shanghai designers, many opt for a virtual shop instead. Two labels we like are Avivi Wang’s Fancy Sh!t and Wingfree: both turn out hip, affordable and quirky womenswear.

Natural skincare
Building on the success of her all-natural, seasonal facials, Olya Eastman now sells ready-to-use skincare products using tasty fruit, veg and herb combinations, such as a tangerine and eucalyptus face oil.
Delicious! (Update: this Taobao shop is closed and sells directly from their own website)

Big shoe sizes
If you’re sick of trying to ugly sister your feet into tiny shoes, there are several Taobao shops specialising in those elusive larger sizes. YZ5888 has everything from metallic creepers (39RMB) to wedge high-top trainers (65RMB) in sizes 40-41, while big-footed gents should check out ITX.

Maternity wear
If you’re after an alternative to the matronly smock, Bellywear and Amanda & Angel offer some halfway stylish options in which to dress your bump, including lace party dresses (528RMB) and wrap jersey dresses (229RMB).

Organic food
Our go-to retailers for online groceries are organic specialists Fields and expat artisanal food outlet Kate & Kimi, who offer goods such as Montreal meats from Brian Tock and Strictly Cookies from Lexie Comstock. If you’re hooked on Taobao however, Agri Taobao is its dedicated organic produce platform, with well over 1,000 farms selling all-natural goodies from rice and fruit to honey and soy sauce. You’ll pay a premium for peace of mind, though: most items come at a hefty price compared to your local wet market. We also like Edan for its beautifully fresh vegetables and organic meat.
Agri Taobao

Our favourite Taobao finds

Mobile phone handset extension
"shoujitingtong"If you hate how portable and easy to use your mobile phone is, buy yourself a retro Moshi extension to give your smartphone all the clunky awkwardness of an old-fashioned phone. There are a variety of different versions available, including ones apparently endorsed by Lady Gaga and others that come with clip on rabbit ears, but our favourite is the one pictured above which allows you to slot your phone into the space on the right and use it like a proper old-school landline phone. It’s supposedly compatible with most HTC, iPhone and Samsung models.
18.56RMB, search for 手机听筒 (shouji tingtong)

Hand-cranked apple peeler
"xiaopiji"Don’t sit there like a sucker using a knife or normal peeler to remove the skin of your fruit – you’re missing out. This ‘modern’ hand-cranked apple peeler is the future.
13.20RMB, search for 现代水果削皮机 (xiandai shuiguo xiaopi ji)

Xi Yangyang costume
"xiyangyang-costume"Want to impress at your next party? Or just fancy wearing something a little different around the flat this weekend? Pick up a full-size, tailor-made Xi Yangyang costume (Hui Tailang, Hong Tailang and Mei Yangyang outfits are also available). If you’re not a big Xi Yangyang fan, a search for ‘cartoon character costume’ in Chinese will throw up all manner of knock-off outfits from Mickey and Minnie to Garfield.
128RMB, search for 卡通人偶服装 (katongren ou fuzhuang)

Soft drinks tap
"soft-drink-tap"If having a professional cocktail maker come to your home and set up your own private bar is a little too classy, why not just buy one of these clip-on soft drinks taps instead?
7.50RMB, search for 碳酸饮料机 (tansuan yinliao ji)