English Guide to Taobao and TMall

Taobao!  It’s the Chinese online shopping platform full of everything you could possibly want, and more.  Except, for having an English version.

Is Taobao really that good for buying Chinese learning resources?

I understand the struggle when it comes to trying to decipher the Chinese and figure out how to buy from there – apparently it’s even a struggle for those who can read Chinese at times.  I used to feel a little left out by this, hearing of the great, cheap purchases that my Mandarin speaking friends had made, and items which seemingly didn’t exist anywhere in the world outside of Taobao. 

So this post is twofold – one, I will compare prices of Children’s Chinese books bought directly on Taobao versus through agents; secondly, I will give a guide to show how to order items from Taobao and tips for those of us that cannot read the language.

In our experience, it’s always better to shop locally and support local businesses – and often the price is cheaper anyhow, especially after shipping.   We’ve not once been disappointed with a book purchased from an online Singapore bookshop.  However, there are sometimes when the books we’re looking for just aren’t available in Singapore, and that’s when we turn to Taobao, or Taobao agents! (and yes, there have been disappointments here, both in terms of the quality of items ordered, or realising the books weren’t as good as we’d hoped).

Price Comparison of Taobao Options for Children’s Chinese Books

I did a comparison for four different Chinese bridging books that I was interested in buying, for my 7 year old daughter. The different options I tried ordering from are below:

Method to BuyWhat this isProsCons
1. Directly on TaobaoUsing Taobao website written fully in ChineseCheapest product prices, and potentially very cheap shipping  Hard to understand; payment and shipping can be difficult.  Refunds difficult.
2. AGENT: EZ Buy (with English Search)Using EZ Buy English website and searching for the book you want in their search engineSimple to search, pay, and ship.  Fairly cheap shipping.Product prices slightly inflated.  Limited product range.
3. AGENT: EZ Buy (with copy & paste of TB URL)Using EZ Buy English website and copying and pasting the URL of product you found on TaobaoSimple to search, pay, and ship. Fairly cheap shipping.Takes extra effort, but will give you better price than searching in English.   Limited product range.
4. AGENT: Taobao Focus (with English Search)Using Taobao Focus English website and searching for the book you want in their search engine.Simple to search, pay, and ship.  Product prices and shipping same as Taobao. Full product range from Taobao.  Great customer service.Uses Taobao’s most expensive shipping option, so likely to cost more than the product itself)
5. AGENT: Taobao Focus (with copy & paste of TB URL)Using Taobao Focus English website and copying and pasting the URL of product you found on Taobao. Simple to search, pay, and ship.  Product prices and shipping same as Taobao.  Full product range from Taobao. Great customer service.Uses Taobao’s most expensive shipping option, so likely to cost more than the product itself)
Comparison of buying options between Taobao directly and using agents

Here are the results after I searched for the 4 different books which I wanted to buy, but which I couldn’t find locally in Singapore:

 Directly on TaobaoEZ Buy (with English Search)EZ Buy (with copy & paste of TB URL)Taobao Focus (with English Search)Taobao Focus (with copy & paste of TB URL)
小狐狸的故事   Little Fox Bridge Books (set of 5)$8.91$15.09$13.00$9.97$8.91
青蛙和蟾蜍 Frog and Toad Chinese (set of 4)  $10.4515.10$12.05$13.06$10.45
加油小米啦 You Can Do It Little Mila! (set of 6)$24.74$22.19$20.19$20.75$24.74
大象小不点 Wilma The Elephant (set of 4)  $9.76n/an/a$10.24$9.05
Cost of Books$55.86$52.38$45.24$61.12$62.25
Agent fee$0.00$0.00$0.00$9.10$9.10
Cost of standard shipping to Singapore$42.00$11.40$11.40$57.00$57.00
Total cost$95.86$63.78$56.64$120.12$119.25
Total Books1915151919
Cost per book including shipping$5.05$4.25$3.78$6.32$6.28
Comparison of costs between Taobo and Taobao agents for Chinese Children’s Books

Prices are written in SGD on a normal day (ie no sale!).

I’m a stickler for a good deal, and I have to say, whilst Taobao direct ordering is not that difficult, the effort needed to shop directly on Taobao probably isn’t worth it given you’ll likely get a comparable price through a good Taobao agent, without the hassle. Hope the above table demonstrates to you that at least for book buying, you don’t need to have any envy of your Chinese-speaking friends ordering directly from Taobao.

English Speakers Guide to getting things from Taobao

Here’s a little guide to show how English-speakers can still easily buy from Taobao, either by using a good Taobao Agent (best method!), or by exercising extreme patience through the direct website (which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend, by the way, proceed at your own risk!).  

There’s a really good graphical English guide on using Taobao, including explanation on how the shipping options work at the following two sites, so I’d recommend having them open when you’re going through the process: https://www.imoney.my/articles/taobao-shopping-guide or https://zula.sg/taobao-english-guide/.

Instructions for ordering directly through Taobao

  1. Don’t attempt it without Google Translate.  Use Google Chrome, and it should automatically give you the option to translate the entire website (if not, add the Google Translate Extension).  It’s not perfect, but it’s a great initial steer.  I don’t recommend trying to do this via the phone app.
  2. Register for a Taobao account (also coincidentally, an Ali Pay account too).  At the top right hand side of the screen, you’ll find the characters “免費註冊” (Register) or in Google Translate view it will say “Free”.  Click this and you’ll be prompted to enter in your details – including email, password, phone number and account name.  Note that at this screen, there is an option to click “English” so you should certainly do that!
    TIP: Before keying in your mobile number, tap on “+86” to change your country code. If you’re hunting for Singapore, it will say “新加坡 +65”, or it’s found under “X”  Xīnjiāpō   You’ll need to key-in a verification code sent to your mobile number too.
  3. Searching for what you want to buy.  You can type English words into the search bar, but you’ll get a better outcome if you paste in a translation in Chinese – again, use Google Translate to do this.  Generally I’m looking for titles of Chinese books, so I just paste them straight in.  If too many results come up, I’ll also add in the author name to narrow it down.
  4. Working out which one to buy.  It’s a gamble.  But the fastest way would be to look at the price, and on the right hand side there is a grey number.  This shows how many paste items have been bought.  Then you can also check the Taobao rating of the seller (which is out of 5, and typically >4.8 is a reliable seller).
  5. Add the items to your basket.  You add a quantity, then click the dark red button with the shopping cart (购物车 – Shopping Cart), which will add it to you cart, and you can continue browsing.
  6. Checking out.  Click on your shopping basket, ensure all the items you want to buy a selected, with expected quantity and price.  Then, checkout by clicking the dark red button right at the bottom (结算 – Payment).   This takes you to a screen where you add your mailing address, name, mobile number (again) etc.   Once done, click on “设置为默认收货地址” (Make Default) if you want to make it your default shipping address so you don’t have to go through this pain again!.
  7. Shipping.  This is where is gets complicated.  There are two options for 跨境配送方式 (Shipping Method) – either “Direct” shipping or “Consolidated”.  Direct will just be sent straight to you; Consolidated is much cheaper but will require a separate Taobao shipping agent or freight forwarder to assist you, and two different payments (because you’ll pay for the products first, and then they’ll be delivered to a domestic warehouse, after which you’ll make a second payment for the international shipping …..  which if it’s sea freight will usually involve a freight forwarder to take delivery of your items in Malaysia and then forward to Singapore on your behalf).  Unless someone has recommended you a good agent for consolidation and delivery, I really wouldn’t be doing this as a non-Chinese speaker, as the opportunities for it to go pear-shape keep magnifying!   Assuming you choose “Direct”, then you just make payment, and the goods will be on their way from the seller to the warehouse in China, and then straight onto Singapore via air.  “Direct” takes 8 to 12 business days.  You’ll have a choice between several international mail carriers, with  EMS as default.
  8. Payment.  This is also not so simple from outside of China.  After confirming your order, you’re directed to an Alipay account.  If it’s your first purchase using Alipay, you need to set up a pin number (6 numerical digits).  Once done, click “确定” (Confirm), and you add your credit card details.   Remember your PIN number!   Also, when adding “cardholder name”, put your Last Name (surname) first, and your First Name in the second space.
  9. Cross your fingers.  If you purchase goes smoothly, you’re a winner!  If not, it’s a pretty big headache to have to chat with the helpline, especially without a Chinese speaking buddy.   It’s not uncommon after you purchase for the seller to text you in Chinese with questions, so you still might need to resort to a Chinese-speaking friend in order to reply.

Tips for first time Taobao buyers:

  • If it’s your first time, just buy from 1-2 sellers, and don’t buy too much, just in case you muck up, the downside is limited!
  • It’s good to scroll through the buyer comments on the products you’re looking at – Google Chrome with Google Translate lets you do this very fast
  • Under some items, you’ll see a red box icon which looks like a small shopping bag with a white string handle – this shows the item is from Tmall, and offshoot of Taobao.  These are larger registered stores, brands or manufacturers.  Think of this as the “Amazon approved sellers” rather than the individual consumer sellers.  So it’s genuine items (yes there are plenty of fakes on Taobao), but probably higher prices too. 
  • Don’t order more than 20kg, or the shipping cost goes up hugely!
  • Prices fluctuate – just like Amazon.  Some days there are big sales, like 11/11.

Instructions for using an agent to order from Taobao website

This would be the stress-free way to do it, and costs are quite similar (at least for book buying!).  There are two agents with full English websites which we’ve used and would recommend.  This is a much easier and less stressful way to get your good delivered!  What’s more, as I found out, sometimes the agents websites will have promotions which are better than Taobao.

Agent 1:  EZ Buy:  In Singapore, a good option is EZ Buy.  They don’t have the full set of items available from Taobao, and items are slightly more expensive (5 – 10% more pricey), but they have a good curated collection with much cheaper shipping into Singapore than doing it direct with Taobao.  And, you’ll have peace of mind that there aren’t fakes in this mix. The costs are pretty similar in the end, assuming EZ Buy stocks the item you want in their collection.

Agent 2:  Taobao Focus:  Globally, a great option is TaoBao Focus.  TB Focus has the identical prices to Taobao, and identical shipping costs, they just charge a flat agent’s fee (of about USD$10).  They let you pay using Paypal, which is also hassle free.    I became a big fan on the day which I accidentally ordered (and paid for) 10 books which I hadn’t meant to order.  TaoBao Focus agent was able to assist me cancel the order and I got a refund to my Paypal account the next day.  I know as a fact this wouldn’t have happened if I’d bought directly from Taobao.

Tips for using Taobao Agents:

  • Prices will be cheaper if you first find the items you want on Taobao, and then paste them directly into EZ Buy, rather than searching from EZ Buy directly.  It’s the case with most agents – search for the product you want, then paste the link into the agent website.
  • If it’s a special Taobao sale day (like 11/11 Sales), then Taobao Focus is likely to have the sale prices too, and perhaps be cheaper than EZ Buy!

Any good Taobao stores to browse for Children’s Books?

Children’s bookstores in TMall with high ratings include:

But, if you’re based in Singapore, please do consider looking in Singapore local bookstores first, as they may stock the same (or even better!!) titles and be cheaper. Good online options for Chinese Children’s bookstore in Singapore are My Story Treasury, Flip for Joy and Books4Tots. Readers of my blog can get a 10% discount at My Story Treasury at checkout through quoting “LahLahBanana10”. Everything is their collection is quality – which is a statement that cannot be said about Taobao.

Final things to keep in mind

  • Expect to pay more for shipping:  Yes Taobao is cheap (whether you order direct or through agents), but be ready to pay high shipping costs (Taobao is about SG$13/kg, and agents can add a few dollars to this).  Don’t be scared off when the international shipping cost is about the same value (or more) than the books you’re ordering.  Mentally prepare for this, and don’t get cold feet when it comes to the shock at payment time, after you’ve spent hours searching for the perfect books.
  • Buy entire book sets, not individual books:  this is by far the cheapest way.
  • Don’t get addicted! Have fun 😉

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