Online shopping in China is intense, Peter Catterall thought.
There were always mountains of packages stacked up in the central collection spot in Lanzhou University in Northwest China’s Gansu Province, where 24-year-old Catterall from the United States works as an English teacher.
Individual packages on Catterall’s campus are delivered to a central collection spot and students and staff then receive a text message with a code to pick them up. They can also just scan a QR code with their phone. This integrated and complex system impressed Catterall, but not as the volume of packages young Chinese students are ordering online.
The shopping frenzies got crazier as November began, Catterall said. He saw everybody looking at their phones, shopping on Taobao when he rode public transit. The Double 11 shopping season started in late October and officially fell on Nov. 11, though this year the first sales boom started on Nov.1.
The holiday (Nov.11) was initially the Singles’ Day in China that celebrates people who are not in relationships, but now it has evolved into the Chinese equivalent of Black Friday, but considerably bigger in scale.
Double 11 is hard to miss even as a foreigner. E-commerce platforms and brands put out sensational advertisements everywhere — on the bus stops, on the subway, in the elevators — to elevate excitement and stimulate consumption. As much as Catterall was intrigued, he didn’t feel that he had much to buy.
But for 24-year-old Reginald Greatbatch from England, who was already a regular online shopper, taking advantage of the discounts offered during Double 11 was a no-brainer.
He shopped every month and would have made purchases during November even without Double 11’s steep markdowns.
“The discount meant I could buy more,” Greatbatch said.
For this year’s Double 11, he set aside 4,000 yuan ($605), and bought a pair of Clarks shoes originally priced at 900 yuan. With 50% off, he only paid 450 yuan.
“I probably wouldn’t have bought those if it weren’t for these discounts, but with this much money saved I would be stupid not to buy it,” he said.
Taobao offers shopping suggestions for users based on what they have been looking at. The algorithm excels at guessing interests and preferences based on searches and browsing history and often shows well-tailored suggestions. For Greatbatch, who likes to browse and rarely has a plan on what to buy before looking, that means more impulsive purchases.
In the UK, the choices shopping apps recommended weren’t good, Greatbatch said. He didn’t online shop much back home, but with the low prices and fast delivery in China, he embraced the convenience. Taobao’s recommendation feature only egged him on to buy more.
“I know I shouldn’t be spending this much on things, but at the same time I enjoy it,” Greatbatch said. “I like the feeling of saving money. Anything I buy during Double 11 isn’t really necessary, but it’s just because it’s double I can get away with it.”
Stan Crienen also likes shopping better in China than in the Netherlands where he’s from. Shopping was a serious task for him back home. He would set aside a chunk of time and go to the city center to buy the things he needed — electronics, clothes, beauty products and other items —separately at individual stores. Then he’d have to carry all the shopping bags home. It wasn’t fun, he said.
In China, Taobao has everything he needs in one place, and things normally get delivered directly to his door in 2 to 4 days without a large fee. Now he can focus and spend time on other stuff.
Having lived in China for the past eight years, Crienen has gained some insights about the Double 11 shopping festival. Not everything will be discounted on Double 11 — the shopping sites just make things seem as if each thing is very cheap with the eye-catching visuals and graphics. But he does think it’s a good day to get some discounts on things he needed to buy anyway.
This year, he needed to buy sportswear, whisky glasses and safety equipment for his new mountain bicycle, so he waited for Double 11 to optimize his savings.
Crienen can read and understand Chinese, so language isn’t a big obstacle for him. For others, shopping in a foreign language can be trying, especially on shopping apps like Taobao and JD that have intricate interfaces and busy layouts. There are many different buttons users can press to explore recommendations, see what they purchased, their delivery orders, the conversations with sellers and more.
Laura Einerson has been living in Beijing for two years but is still not confident with her Chinese reading comprehension. She relies heavily on Taobao’s photo function, which allows her to find a picture of the item she wants on Google and use image search on Taobao to locate it.
59-year-old Frank Schlenstedt from Germany understands basic Chinese, but figuring out Taobao’s package deals and the rules for Double 11 was so much of a hassle that he decided not to participate in the Double 11 this year. Sometimes he would have to ask a colleague or use Google translate to help him understand the complicated deals. Even with the discounts and the benefits, the amount of energy and work he has to put into it is just not worth it, he said, so he let it go.
He does, however, appreciate the convenience of online shopping in China. He prefers shopping in person at the European markets in Suzhou where he lives, but he likes the option of also being able to buy whatever he needs from Taobao and get it in one or two days. Sometimes he asks his friends to send him the link to the right products he is looking for so he doesn’t get it wrong, and he can pay instantly with Alipay, which is linked to his Taobao and JD accounts.
For someone who enjoys shopping as much as Greatbatch, the minor inconvenience of the language barrier can be solved with translation apps in just a few minutes. If he sees the 11/11 sign on the item that indicates it’s a sale, or sees anything showing a discount or a package deal, he takes a screenshot and puts it through his translation app.
“I can afford two minutes of translating for the low price,” Greatbatch said.
When he first came to Beijing a year ago, he had a Chinese friend help him set up an account on Taobao and made a test purchase to see how everything worked. Then he made some bad purchases where clothes were bad quality or the sizes weren’t right. Though he learned to use the service and started to enjoy Taobao’s convenience more and more, sometimes the possibility of not knowing the quality still intimidates him, and he doesn’t like to bother his Chinese friends to help him return low-quality items. He doesn’t buy anything too expensive on Taobao anyway, so he chooses to accept that every purchase won’t always be a winner.
“That’s just something I need to get used to,” he said. “It doesn’t stop me from shopping on Taobao.”
In addition to being convenient, e-commerce apps in China are designed in an interactive way, Catterall noticed. Shopping in China is more of a social practice, with people tuning in to see live-streamers and celebrities present stores’ products. Compared to the US and the UK, where he lived for five years, going on Chinese shopping platforms is a more entertaining experience, with lots of fun videos to watch, comments and reviews and more interaction between consumers and retailers.
Despite varying levels of adaptation to shopping online in China and personal preferences, the seamless mobile payment in China can look like the ultimate convenience, especially for those who are used to entering their credit card number every time they shop online.
Jill Macdonald returned to the United States in 2019 after living in Shanghai for three years.
Phone payment is one of the things she misses the most. She misses paying for everything on her phone in China, from buying clothes online to paying street vendors.
She online shopped all the time in China because of its convenience and the efficiency, whereas she was never a big fan back in the U.S. When she shopped online on Taobao, the payment would automatically go to her Alipay that was linked to her account — she never had to put a credit card number in or verify anything. As Apple pay and Android pay are becoming more and more common in the U.S., it’s not ubiquitous like Alipay and WeChat Pay in China. It was difficult for her to adapt back to using a card.
Schlenstedt has lived in China for nine years, and he is amazed by how much the shopping scene in China has changed in the past decade. Lots of social norms have been stagnant for many decades in Germany, he said, whereas things in China are constantly developing. Even the Double 11 shopping festival has different rules every year. Stores are always changing and there are always new ones popping up on the streets. Development is good, he said, it means the economy is alive.
China is a growing country. New things are constantly invented, so Chinese people, young and old, have to keep up and adapt to new norms.
“Five or six years ago, I always had money with me,” Schlenstedt said. “Now, I never have money because I don’t need money anymore. I just need my phone, or my watch, and boom — it’s already done.”