If you plan on living in China for an extended period of time, using Taobao and Tmall, the country’s two biggest online shopping sites, is well worth the effort. Unfortunately, there’s no English version, so if you can’t read Chinese, then the sites can be a bit daunting – even with Google Translate. That’s why Tech in Asia has decided to make this English-language tutorial on how to use Taobao and Tmall.
Before getting started, you’ll need a Chinese phone number, a credit card (Visa, Mastercard, PCB, or PPS for foreign cards), email address, and a Chinese mailing address. Alternatively, you can go to local post offices to buy Taobao recharge cards, but this article will focus on using credit cards. The screenshots in this guide will all be in Chinese, but we highly recommend you use Google Chrome’s built-in web page translation to make your life a bit easier.
Navigate to login.taobao.com and click the button to sign up.
Leave the country as the default mainland China. Input your phone number, and click to unveil a CAPTCHA code. Type it in, make sure to check the terms of service box, and click on to the next step.
Check your email to see something that looks like this. Click the big orange button or the long verification link. This should automatically redirect you back to the next step on Taobao.
Congratulations! You’ve got a Taobao account (but not an Alipay account … more on that further down). Now it’s time to find stuff.
Head back to the main Taobao.com website, and type in whatever you’re looking for. In this example, I want to buy a hard drive for my computer. It’s best to look up the Chinese name for whatever you need (Nciku might be a better option for finding the exact phrase if Google Translate doesn’t work). English search terms might work, but Chinese will get you better results.
Depending on what you’re looking for, you’ll see a variety of different filters to narrow down your search. Below that are the product listings. This is where Chrome’s translation feature, despite the awkward spacing and shoddy translation quality, can come in handy.
Tmall and Taobao items are listed together by default. For my purchase, I don’t want to risk getting a fake, so I’m going to click on the Tmall tab at the top to further narrow my search (we’ll look at pages from both sites, though). Tmall is generally more likely to sell genuine products than Taobao. The payment process is the same for both.
Also keep an eye out for the credit card icon, indicating that the seller accepts credit card payments. Almost all Tmall merchants accept it, but that’s not always the case on Taobao.
Taobao and Tmall product pages differ a bit, so we’ll start with Taobao. You can calculate shipping costs by selecting your home province from a drop down menu just below the price. The right pane contains important seller information, notably the merchant’s feedback rating and chat status.
That rating, which contains one to five icons, is based on the total amount of transactions that received positive feedback. This is probably the most important indicator of the merchant’s reliability and honesty. As a rule of thumb, gold crowns are legitimate shops and are perfectly safe to buy from. Silver crowns can probably be trusted, too. Buy at your own risk from merchants with fewer than four diamonds, and it’s probably best to avoid hearts altogether. Each icon is superior to five of the lesser icon, so one diamond is better than five hearts, one silver crown is better than five diamonds, and so on.
You’ll also see some numbers with arrows pointing up or down, but these can more or less be ignored. They indicate delivery speed, seller attitude, and whether the seller’s items match the descriptions. The arrow indicates if the positive feedback is above or below average.
The chat icon is blue if the merchant is online and available to chat with. If your Chinese is good enough, you can speak directly to the merchant at pretty much any point during the transaction, from asking details about an item before purchasing or even after the items are delivered. Reliable merchants on Taobao are fairly active and easily reachable, and it’s possible to even bargain or get items that aren’t visibly listed.
Depending on the item, you’ll see several boxes where you can specify your preferred details of the item like size, color, bundle options, etc. Make sure to choose something rather than nothing, or else you can expect a phone call from the merchant asking you what you want in Chinese. You’ll see a few other icons next to the item photo. Check the glossary below to see what they all mean:
Scroll down a bit and you’ll see a number of tabs, which is on specifications by default. Take any reviews you read with a grain of salt, as there’s no telling how many paid fake reviews have been written for a particular product. You can also see a history of how many times the item has been sold under the transactions tab.
Below this you might find a few more scattered product details, but this area is mostly used to advertise other items that the merchant is selling.
Tmall product pages are similar, but they lack the seller rating pane. This is because all Tmall vendors are assumed to be legitimate B2C businesses that are pre-vetted by the website. For electronics, you’ll see a blue ribbon at the top left showing that Tmall has certified the product as genuine.
Check it out
Note: If you’re using a VPN, we’d highly recommend you deactivate it for the remaining steps so it won’t wreak havoc on the shopping cart and checkout procedures.
Click the button with a shopping cart icon to add it to your cart, and a window should pop up asking if you wish to check out immediately. If not, there’s a shopping cart link at the very top of the page.
On the shopping cart page, check the boxes next to the items you want to buy. You’ll see both Tmall and Taobao items on this page, but you can only buy from one site at a time. For Taobao items, you can also compare the checked items as part of a recently added feature. Product details, ratings, and merchant stats can all be seen side by side.
Click the orange button on the bottom left to proceed to the checkout page. Next, you’ll be prompted to enter a bunch of personal information before making your first purchase. Most of this will be kept in the system so you won’t have to re-enter it for future transactions.
First, select your phone number from the drop down, and send yourself an SMS code. Enter the code and confirm to move onto the next step.
Input your address details and your phone number again. You can leave the landline field blank and just enter your mobile number.
Click the big button on the bottom right corner to submit your order.
Now it’s time to make an Alipay account that will be linked to your new Taobao/Tmall account. Enter and re-enter the password of your choice. It can be the same as your Taobao/Tmall password. Check the terms of service box, and confirm.
You’ll be shown a list of banks that you can link to your Alipay account. Click on the second tab to reveal credit card options, and scroll down to see the foreign cards. Choose yours, and move on to the next step. Using domestic bank cards is not an option because they require you to enter a Chinese citizen ID card number.
Enter your credit card and card holder details. Be sure to enter your billing address, not your shipping address. Click the orange button at the bottom, and you’re done! Take note that a credit card transaction fee might be applied. In this case, it was about RMB 12 (US$2).
If you don’t see that green checkmark, don’t try reordering just yet. The transaction might have gone through anyway. Make sure to check your credit card activity on your bank’s website first.
Your items will be shipped soon, and delivery usually only takes one to three days in China. Once it comes, it’s good etiquette to confirm payment. If not, this will be done automatically in 10 business days.
To do this, head back to the main Taobao page and click on the “我的淘宝” (“My Taobao”) link at the top. This is where you can review your purchase history and check the status of items you’ve delivered. A gift box means the seller hasn’t shipped it yet, a delivery truck means it’s on the way, and a checkmark means it’s been delivered. Clicking on the button to the right of an order will let you confirm that an item has been delivered and is in good condition. You can also evaluate the item and seller if you please.
If an item never comes or is in poor condition, refunds are usually available if the item page shows the appropriate icon (see the glossary above).
Note: When the courier delivers the item to your door, it’s best to open it up and check to make sure it’s not broken before you sign for it. If it’s not what you want, simply refuse to take it. Otherwise, getting a refund will be extremely difficult.
To apply for a refund, click on the item in your order history. You’ll be brought to a page full of info about that specific purchase. If the merchant is taking a long time to ship the item, you can give them a nudge using the reminder link. You can use this once per hour.
Next to that link is the refund application. Select the reason for your refund from the dropdown menu and enter a few details in the appropriate field (Chinese is best here). You can also upload a photo of a broken or incorrect item.
From the author’s experience, refunds are hit and miss. If you don’t see a return made in your credit card activity within a week, call your credit card’s bank and ask to refute the transaction.