Meet Taobao: China’s bigger faster version of Amazon


Taoboa is China's version of Amazon, but much faster: products are sometimes delivered in minutes, not days.
Taoboa is China's version of Amazon, but much faster: products are sometimes delivered in minutes, not days.
Photo: Virginia Werner/Cult of Mac

Made_in_china_bugMainland China is Apple’s second biggest market, and will one day be its first. Apple is making a big push on the mainland, opening new stores and investing in home-grown companies. Why the interest? Because China is the new Japan — it’s where the future is happening. All this week we take a look at the cutting-edge apps that define mobile life on the mainland.

SHANGHAI CITY, China — Imagine a website where the all the millions of “made in China” products are at your fingertips . Taobao delivers just that, and the app has completely revolutionized online shopping here in China.

Taobao is like Amazon, but bigger and faster.
Screenshot: Taobao

China’s Amazon: Taobao

App name: Taobao
What it is: Amazon, but bigger and faster
Owned by: Alibaba Group, one of China’s biggest Internet companies
What it does: A combination of eBay and Amazon, Taobao sells 800 million items, including Vietnamese brides
Special sauce: The express service can have goods to your door in 15 minutes

I ordered a bicycle helmet on Taobao one afternoon and received a phone call from the distributor within 15 minutes. “When will someone be home today?” they asked me. I told them the exact hours my apartment would be occupied, then realized with horror after hanging up that I had left myself vulnerable to being robbed.

I rushed home from work and caught the hungover delivery man, with beer breath from the night before, just as he pulled up to my apartment on a scooter. He had me sign a piece of paper, gave me the helmet, mumbled something unintelligible and zoomed away. This was all in a matter of two hours. I remember when I used to think free two-day shipping from Amazon Prime was cool.

Products on Taobao are sold at a fixed price or by auction (not as common) from different regions of China and surrounding Chinese-speaking countries. Browse the website and you’ll find great deals on clothing, digital equipment, food and spices, childcare products, household appliances and … Vietnamese brides?

Over 98 million people use Taobao. On the last Singles’ Day, China’s largest annual online sales event, Taobao reported earnings upward of $10 billion. That was just for one day.

My roommates order from the Taobao app regularly and we have packages unceremoniously dumped on our doorstep almost daily. A delivery man once showed up with some Greek yogurt and asked me to sign and pay for it. I told him the package wasn’t mine.

“Well,” he said. “Somebody needs to pay for it because I don’t want to have to come back.” Then he plopped down at our kitchen table.

I insisted that he call the person who ordered it and have them speak to me. Sure enough, one of my roommates answered and asked me to cover her for it. “I’ll pay you back with Zhifubao right now,” she told me over the phone.

Up Next: China’s PayPal: Zhifubao

headshot-80x80Virginia Werner is a freelance writer, photographer and editor from Fremont, California with a B.A. in Journalism and Chinese from the University of Oregon. She currently lives in Shanghai City, China.


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