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In the Wild, Reflections

Not TO GOOGLE but TO TAOBAO

In a previous blog post, I covered some tactics to source electronics in the Huaqiangbei electronic markets in Shenzhen. Some asked, what if you are not located just around the corner of Huaqiangbei? Or, what if you really really can’t leave your office, because you are in the midst of finishing up that latest hardware prototype of yours? In this post, I teamed up with the brilliant DIY maker minds Amanda Williams from Fabule and Josh Chan & Tarun Pondicherry from LightUp to answer these questions.

Here, we discuss how you can access the same electronic markets remotely, without leaving your office, and how you can do so in less than 24 hours. In a second blog post (soon to come), we will cover how to turn your PCB design (Printed Circuit Board) into an actual board by working with HQPCB (华强PCB), a Shenzhen-based PCB manufacturer.

Taobao is most commonly known as China’s largest online shop, at times compared to eBay or Amazon, that offers anything from standard consumer products such as shoes, bags, home appliances all the way to services such as custom-made designs, finding a temporary boyfriend over Chinese new year, etc. Much less known, however, is that Taobao also functions as the online interface to the Huaqiangbei electronic markets in Shenzhen. It is based on two built-in features: 1) a search field used to type in the product or service you are looking for and 2) a built-in chat interface from Alibaba that links up a product and its vendor. How this works in practice:

Let’s say you search, for instance, for a 10K ohm SMT 1206 Resistor. It helps to search for such items in Chinese with help from Google Translate and the Chinese Digikey datasheets. Taobao will return a screen that lists several links to different vendors that offer such a resistor, and includes prices next to each listing, in this case ranging all the way from 0.01 RMB to 35 RMB:

Such a wide price range is common and can mean different things: some vendors list the price per piece, others list a ballpark price (especially in cases of such small parts like resistors), and at other times a difference in price could indicate a difference in quality. And so the next step is to figure out more details on the price and/or quality of the product. In the case of such small electronics like the resistor we searched for, many vendors offer more than just the specific piece you searched for. And so the price they list is, for instance, an average for all their products or a starting price. If you click on one of the listings that your search returned, the vendor would then list all the different products they sell as well as the different prices and specs. It is here where the built-in chat interface is the essential tool. Hardly any Taobao order would take place without some sort of – even if minimal – interaction between the shopper and vendor.


Clicking on the little blue bubble will open up a chat interface in your browser window (see screenshot above). Each of these chat interfaces is linked to the vendor of the product, who is often located in one of the tiny  stalls that make up the big department stores in China’s industry-heavy cities like Shenzhen (check out previous blog post [link] that covered the stalls in the electronic markets of huaqiangbei in Shenzhen). This is visible also when you go to the markets; many vendors are busy typing away on their computers, and while sometimes this might be for the purposes of leisurely distraction, more often they are interacting with a taobao customer. So rather than going to the markets in person, finding the specific market and the vendor who sells the piece you are looking for (which is often an hour-long intensive search), many make use of Taobao and the access the shopping platform provides to the same vendors.

Those who don’t speak Chinese install the Google Translate plugin, which does a decent job translating basic conversations. By this we mean that it works well for translating technical terms, and less well for translating more nuanced topics, for instance, when there is confusion about some of the product specs or if you order something more custom-made like business cards. Free plugins like the Zhongwen Chinese Popup Dictionary help because you can move your cursor over confusing translations and get a character-by-character translation of the original Chinese. This sometimes helps you deduce the meaning of a phrase that Google Translate gets wrong.

The vendors who communicate through Alibaba chat are mostly pretty patient though – in the end, it’s about two individuals (you and the vendor) making a concerted effort to make the order work. If we order more we also negotiate with the vendors to lower or waive the delivery costs. So to sum it up, when we purchase things on Taobao, we first inquire with the vendors about things like: what is the minimum amount of order a vendor accepts, the amount of pieces we want to order, how long the delivery will take, where the vendor is located, if there is the possibility to lower the delivery costs, ask if the part can be picked up in person instead of delivery, ask for clarification on product specs that aren’t in the product description, etc. For instance, once when we ordered a power supply, we needed to double-check with the vendor the “barrel jack” factor (the one that the Arduino uses) – which means we had to know if the center pin is power or ground. In the power supply we found on taobao, this was not part of the description, and so we had to ask the vendor about it. It was a bit tricky to describe this in technical terms in Chinese, so we used the chat interface to send the vendor links to screenshots and drawings of the jack and power supplies that demonstrated what we wanted, like the one here:


Some of the vendors are also available on Taobao during off-working hours after 6pm, when they physically leave the markets, and so people can place an order during times when the actual physical markets are shut down. Before spending a lot of time interacting with a vendor, we make sure that the vendor is rated highly by other users. Every vendor is rated through a series of symbols, whereas one or several diamond shaped symbols next to the vendor’s user name mean he/she is trustworthy – based on user recommendations. When you decide on a product, finalize with the vendor the amount of your order and delivery cost. At this point, the vendor updates the order number and all you have to do is hit the browser refresh button a couple of times until you see the order number and final price. Payment then runs through Alipay, but also many international credit cards are accepted.

This blog post is a collective piece co-written by Amanda, Josh, Tarun, and myself, and would not have been possible without the many hours of their hard work put into uncovering the digital mechanics of Shenzhen’s hardware and electronic worlds. So extra special thanks to Amanda, Josh & Tarun for spending their time and energy to work with me on writing this up for Transfabric!

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