With the 2008 melamine milk powder scandal still fresh in our minds, many Beijing residents prefer to purchase foreign-brand products. The trouble is they’re often hard to find and come with sizeable price tags. Unfortunately, we’re left to choose between skimping on quality to save a buck or paying large sums for imported goods. Luckily the ease of online shopping means your favorite brands can be delivered straight to your door at prices that won’t break the bank.
What to Look For
Nothing trumps the safety and comfort of our children; but after close inspection, the kid’s gear found in Beijing’s shopping aisles doesn’t quite cut it. Chinese manufacturers are increasingly adept at producing fake copies of popular foreign items, and children’s goods have not been spared. So how do we know which brands and products to trust?
The most convenient source of information is the Internet. Google and Amazon have suggestions and reviews aplenty for any and all items you may be ogling. But while online research may be the easiest option, it’s not always the most reliable – anyone can post articles, from the top pediatrician in the country to your wacky next-door neighbor. Seek out specific websites with credible writers and a solid reputation – you can usually judge based on the professionalism of the web design and the amount of detail they’re willing to disclose about their sources. The US-based, ConsumerReports.org offers subscribers access to the latest consumer reports and information for USD 26 a year. For a foolproof approach, combine online research with advice from friends, and if you’re still not convinced about the product, ask your doctor or child’s teacher if they have any recommendations.
Why Shop Online?
There is a need for quality children’s products that can’t be met by local Chinese retailers. Laura Roark, a Montessori teacher and mother of a 10-month-old girl, explained that domestically produced formula is expensive "for something you can’t fully trust."
"Baby things in Beijing are expensive, and the selection leaves a lot to be desired. It’s great to be able to order lotions and shampoos [online]at a price that I find much more reasonable," continues Roark.
For Jeaneah Paik, currently pregnant with her first child, it is a matter of having easy access to the US-made products she trusts, as opposed to organizing her purchases around impending visits to the States. Paik asserts that her preference for online shopping is based on saving time and money. "When I go to the States, it has been for work and I don’t have time to shop. Also, the choices from US vendors are much better than what you can find in Beijing, and for much less."
Where to Shop
Taobao.com, the Chinese eBay, is raved about by users for good reason: its range of international products can be found for the same price or cheaper than what you can find in the stores around town.
For busy moms like Roark, Taobao is a life saver. "[Taobao] eliminates having to run around town looking for the right thing, and it’s generally a lot cheaper than the stores in [Beijing]. The system takes most of the risk out," says Roark.
Taobao has customer reviews and seller reputations to ensure you get what you paid for. But just as with eBay, anyone can sell on Taobao and you can never be sure that the items you purchase are the real deal. For your first Taobao purchase we recommend you read through all the reviews, then order a small item from a selected vendor – that way you can inspect the product closely and decide if it’s worth buying from the vendor again.
For those who’d prefer to buy from foreign-brand sites, Dong-Xi.com can serve as a superb, albeit pricier, resource. You can either order directly from US retail websites and have purchases sent to Dong-Xi’s US warehouse for a 10 percent service fee, or simply fill out their online order form and Dong-Xi will handle the whole ordering process for you.
Dong-Xi recently teamed up with America’s largest baby products website, Diapers.com. To test out their new partnership, Dong-Xi allowed a select group of parents to purchase baby and child items from Diapers prior to the service going online for the general public.
Lori Rung Lombardo, a mother who seldom shops online, used the opportunity to order diapers and lotion that she hadn’t been able to find in Beijing. She said it was very convenient. "[It was a] great opportunity to get a hold of items you might not normally be able to access," she said.
"It was easy to order via the Dong-Xi website, and as promised, my items appeared at my doorstep in less than two weeks. The shipping costs were what I would consider normal for shipping from the US – not cheap, but it beats having family members shipping from their homes," says Lombardo.
Paik, on the other hand, found Dong-Xi’s user interface awkward to use and their service costs were "too much to justify using them." She believes Dong-Xi’s services would only be useful for those who do not travel or live in the US.
It is important to remember that Dong-Xi’s charges vary based on the individual shopper. If you’re worried about your spending, Dong-Xi has an online calculator to help keep track of your account.
Is Online Shopping Right For You?
For daily necessities like diapers and baby wipes, Beijing’s foreign-style supermarkets will usually suffice. But for products such as baby formula and toys, online shopping can be a safer option.
Different standards and lifestyles mean that online shopping is not always for everyone. While Lombardo has nothing against shopping online, she frequents retail stores far more often. "The benefit [of online shopping], of course, is convenience. But I rarely shop online because I live so close to grocery stores and my husband and I prefer to buy things in smaller quantities," she says.
Paik, who travels to the States four times a year for business, has regular opportunities to mule items back via suitcase. However she still prefers to buy from US online retailers to save time. "You might be able to find the same product here but they will always have a huge premium over buying the same product through an online US retailer," says Paik.
Whatever your situation, online shopping gives buyers a wider range of items at more competitive prices. And for us, that sounds like reason enough to give it a shot.
Our Online Shopping Picks
www.britishcornershop.co.uk ships all types of British-brand goodies to Beijing, including baby formula, in as little as one week.
www.iHerb.com stocks a wide selection of herbal, natural products and ships to China at an affordable rate (around RMB 50 for items under 3kg).
www.beijinghomedelivery.com delivers baby care goods to your doorstep for only RMB 20, or for free if you spend over RMB 500.
www.dong-xi.com allows you to buy from online US retailers and have your purchases shipped to China within two weeks.
www.taobao.com is China’s answer to eBay, with vendors stocking everything you need for a fraction of retail prices.