How to Buy in Taobao, the Biggest Online Mall in China

What is Taobao? Answer: It’s an online shopping website with a huge number of sellers selling any kind of products with really low prices, all competing with each other, hence the reason it’s so popular.

Is Taobao safe? Taobao uses a escrow service. So when you pay, the money goes to Taobao and not the seller. The seller will only receive his payment after you acknowledge arrival of the package. After you check your purchased item and are satisfied with it then you login to Taobao and click “Goods received”. After this, Taobao will release the payment to the seller. But please, don’t try to outsmart the seller and lie about package “didn’t arrive”. He will have proof provided by the courier company and it’s delivery tracking system.

“I am not Chinese,  how do I register” Well, read on for a few hints and tips on how to navigate your way around and become a Taobao pro like the Chinese …

1) Download Google Chrome
First things first – don’t run before you can walk. As you’re aware, Taobao is a Chinese shopping site so it’s in Chinese. This is completely useless to those of us who can’t read Chinese. The advantage of downloading and installing the Google Chrome browser is that it automatically translates pages into the language of your browser.  This is a very easy process – after downloading Chrome, go to the ‘Settings’ tab. Scroll down to the bottom and click ‘Advanced Settings’ and then ‘Languages.’ Here, you can select the language of your browser along with any languages you wish to be translated when viewing web pages.

2) Register for online banking with your Chinese bank
In order to set up an account and pay for your items, you must have a handy little USB key (as given by the Agricultural Bank of China) or security device, provided to you courtesy of your bank. The type of security devices given vary from bank to bank. Bank of China customers for example, are given a device that is not a USB-style plug-in but a stick that automatically generates a unique code when you log in to your online account. Regardless, this is a security feature installed on Taobao – no security key, no purchase. This is a great idea because it means that even if somebody finds out your PIN number and tries to buy something online, they can’t unless they also have access to your key, which has its own separate password (double indemnity if you will). Your bank may or may not charge you a small fee (10 – 20 RMB) for it.

Ideally, go with a Chinese friend to help you in the process of obtaining above-mentioned key. For the purposes of this article, I will explain the process for ABC (Agricultural Bank of China) as this is who I bank with. Please note: the processes for obtaining the device and registering online may vary from bank to bank.

When you go to the bank and request online banking, the staff will give you a USB key. The security staff will then take you to a machine and ask you to choose an eight digit password for the key which you must enter three times. They then set up the key for use and give you a receipt. Now, this is what they may not tell you: On the receipt are two codes: an authorisation code and a verification code. Both have a 14 day validity period and need to be used within this timeframe in order to download the security certificate that enables the key for use on your computer.

3) Download security certificate onto your computer (if with ABC)
This is a two-part process, the first of which is automatically done when you plug the key into your computer. The computer should recognize the new device and open an installation wizard. Follow the steps for downloading the security suite, which is the platform that manages the certificate. The second part requires you to log on to your bank’s website and manually download the certificate itself, now validating your key and making it ready for use. Customers from other banks may not have to deal with this step but they will have to download and install a security feature from their banks.

4) Set up an account
As foreigners, we have fewer options open to us for registering our details and setting up an account. The Chinese use a system called Alipay or Zhifubao in Chinese pinyin which links their bank account directly to their Taobao account. Using this system, they can then deposit money into their Taobao accounts at the drop of a hat whenever they run low, much like using PayPal and making sure it has available funds. However, we can’t do this since we don’t have a Chinese ID card, which means there is only one available method left for us to use: linking your bank card directly to your account and pay using that – instant payment via a debit card. This is where the USB key is needed since you are accessing your funds directly to purchase something, so security is tighter.

To set up the account, log on to www.taobao.com. On the top left hand corner click ‘Register Free.’ This opens a registration page. Complete the information to set up your account and away you go!

5) Paying for goods
Please note: paying for goods can only be done through Internet Explorer. This is currently the only supported browser for making payment, so although you can browse in English on Google Chrome, you must pay for your items in Internet Explorer.

Let’s take the process for a t-shirt …

Once you’ve selected the item that you want, click on the payment button to complete the purchase.  This will load the next screen which will confirm the price, number of items and the address it is to be sent to plus any delivery costs to be incurred. Click next if this information is correct.

After this is the payment screen. Here, a list of banks will appear for you to choose from. You should only choose the one at the bottom of the page listed beneath Internet Banking, like this:

After clicking next, you will be asked to input your USB password, then your debit card password, then your USB password again before clicking OK. (For Bank of China users, you must submit your username and password, obtain a security code via text message and input the code from your security device).

Purchase complete!

6) Returning an item
In the event that you should need to return an item you should talk to the seller first to advise them of this and to obtain a return address and telephone number. They will not refund your money until they have received the returned item, usually 7-10 days. If you want to swap the item then this is fine, they will send you another once they have received the returned item. However, be aware that you are liable for the delivery costs of returning the item unless you have pre-purchased shipping insurance on the payment page. The costs are usually 12 RMB for small / light items and around 20 RMB for larger / heavier items. It is your responsibility (or ask a Chinese friend if you are unable to communicate that well) to contact a local courier company. They will then collect your package and send it back to the seller.