Dozens of taobao agents will pop up on a simple Google search. Where to start in sorting through these masses? I recommend evaluating each for the following criteria, here in order of priority:
- Website language
- Ease of navigation on website
- Customer service availability and quality
- Transaction currency
- Payment options
- “Extras” like pre-packing photography service and discounting programs
1. Website language
Website language is a no-brainer. If you’re American, British, Australian or a Kiwi, or just fluent in English, you’ll have no problem finding a taobao agent since most operate in English anyways. (Beware, however, of websites with poorly edited, hard-to-read English texts. Some nasty communication issues are bound to arise with agents whose English skills are spotty.) If you’d prefer to trade in Russian, there are plenty of taobao agents in your language. Spanish, French, Italian, German and Polish customers can also find agents with websites in their language, although you’ll have to search a bit harder to find these guys.
2. Ease of navigation on website
Check out the website navigation. I find the best method is to be (pretend or real) a completely uninitiated Chinese online shopper. Your first look should be for a section describing the ordering procedure. If you struggle to follow the instructions for using the website, that website is most likely not for you. Generally speaking, images speak volumes; long-winded texts are likely to be left unread and misunderstood. Several agents now offer a standardized powerpoint-like illustrated protocol which could not be any clearer than the nose on one’s face:
3. Customer service availability and quality
Next, have a look at how the agent helps you shop. Are there links to various taobao web merchants on the homepage? Or do you have to laboriously Google them yourself?
Most agents encourage you to cut-and-paste an URL of your product choice from any merchant and place it in your local-agent shopping cart. So be sure to evaluate the sophistication of an agent’s product search mechanism. The best agents will offer a branching-category list beginning, for example, with “Men’s Apparel”, taking you through to “Undergarments”, then “Bottoms” and ending just with those “Cartoon boxers” that you’re looking for. The less helpful agents supply only an organic search by keyword function – a relatively unfiltered process which is likely to lead to tens of thousands of product results.
A good agent will also provide tips for separating the wheat from the chaff amidst the many merchants. The wide-open nature of the web invites not only reputable vendors to sell their wares, but also embraces start-ups with less experience under their belts – or even disreputable companies – who want to make a quick yuan. Importing counterfeit designer goods can get the buyer into real hot water! Agents who have introduced a ranking system (based on companies’ track records and customer satisfaction reviews) should be preferred over those providing no feedback to buyers regarding seller trustworthiness.
Customer service is a big deal in today’s complex world of commercialism. When dealing with a foreign culture and language, it’s an even bigger deal for the international shopper.
Given a 12-hour time difference between Beijing and, say, Boston, I as a customer want as many methods as possible to communicate with my service provider. I’d like to be able to email at 5pm before leaving work, but I’d also like the option of phoning an agent at a decent hour of the evening if there’s an issue that needs discussion. Phone/Skype, email, online chat, maybe even that old-fashioned fax are the media to look for. A local clock ticking away on the homepage is a welcome sight, as are details of operating (or “online”) hours.
Look for an agent that has a sufficiently large staff and a good network server on hand so that you’re not glued to one dedicated representative. A list of team members on an agent’s website signals accountability and bumps the level of trust up yet another step.
4. Transaction currency
Now to the salient question of payment and currency. Many customers might be most comfortable dealing exclusively in US$. Europeans may prefer Euros. Other international buyers could be happiest with the CNY (Chinese yuan). It’s up to you because there are taobao agents galore who offer various transactional denominations.
Whatever your choice, you will not escape currency exchange charges in some form, unless you own a CNY bank account. These charges will hit you either as exchange commissions at your bank or credit card institute, or in an undervalued static exchange rate arbitrarily set by the taobao agent.
5. Payment options
Payment options range broadly from PayPal to bank transfer, Western Union to WebMoney. Most users will find PayPal the most convenient, familiar and secure payment method and will therewith be prepared to swallow the 3% service fee.
For you, determining the optimal payment method may be a matter of trial and error. So it could be wise to choose an agent who offers as many options as possible. Keep in mind, too, that most agents require 2 separate payments, the first to cover products + domestic shipping + agent service charge, and the second to pay for international shipping and optional insurance. Customers with access to a revolving online account, offered by most (although not all) agents, will find they have the most flexibility to handle their money as they wish.
6. “Extras” like pre-packing photography service and discounting programs
Extra bells and whistles in the service area sweeten the customer-agent relationship. While most agents will spot-check your ordered goods for accuracy (including color and size) prior to shipping, the best agents will photograph and share those images with you to avert a potential return of the goods if the customer finds the order erroneous.
Smart agents provide online shipping calculators to figure your estimated costs based on purchase weight, shipping method and destination country. With a plethora of methods to choose from, including the old standbys DHL and UPS, as well as EMS (Chinese express service, often at discount rates), various postal and SAL (sea-and-land) routes, the customer’s big deciding factor may be delivery time – anywhere from around 5 days to several weeks, depending on which method you choose.
Service-charge discounting programs, most based on a system of point accumulation, are available with most agents. But the most fun and creative ones are those focusing on getting the agent networked in to the online social world of the customer, either with photos of happy customers with their Chinese purchases, or promotional tweets, or (ultimately) new customer referrals.