China Consumer

Translating Taobao

A service for expats that makes e-commerce easier


The founders of Baopal

Turn the air purifier on throughout the day; don’t give clocks as gifts; and try not to get annoyed when people take so many pictures of their food when they dine out.

These are some of the things foreign expats gradually figure out when they move to China. And among the challenges: shopping for groceries. As Jay Thornhill, an expat, told Jiemian: “I found that whenever we went to convenience stores or supermarkets in China, what would take all my local friends only a minute would take us expats nearly an hour.”

To that end, Thornhill founded a company in 2015 that helps non-Chinese language readers to navigate the country’s largest e-commerce platforms Tmall and Taobao – both of which are operated by Alibaba.

Baopals, which is short for “friends of Taobao”, is a Shanghai-based website that pulls data from the two Alibaba platforms and translates product information into English. Taobao, for instance, is only available in Chinese and requires users to set up an Alipay account for payment.

Baopals makes money by charging a service fee of between 5% and 10% (depending on the value of the transaction). Once a user places an order on the site, the company makes the order on the e-commerce platforms. Shoppers can also settle their bill via PayPal or UnionPay on the platform.

Baopals now boasts 45,000 registered users and has sold more than 2.6 million products through its site. Rmb70 million was transacted in gross merchandise value last year. On average, a user buys around 60 items a year and spends up to Rmb3,500 ($550).

Despite the niche’s success, Baopals has its challenges. For a start, a lot of web browsers now offer a translation function. Savvier expats have also learned how to shop online. “Baopals may be a great entry point for a lot of expats. But for more and more foreigners in China, figuring out how to shop on Taobao and Tmall has become a way of life for them,” one industry insider observes.

Moreover, Baopals model could be upended if Alibaba launched a version of Taobao or Tmall in English. Thornhill thinks that is unlikely, because it is such a niche business. “Their platform is completely built for a Chinese audience and to do all of that for such a small market, it’s hard to see them prioritising it,” he told CNBC.

Meanwhile Baopals is considering expanding its services to overseas buyers who also want to shop on Alibaba’s platforms in China (doing so via the international versions of the sites, which are still in Chinese). “We hope to be closer to the Alibaba ecosystem. We believe we can help them build better brand loyalty and trust among Western consumers,” said Charlie Erickson, another cofounder.

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