Ever wonder what its like to run an online store? A local journalist went undercover to get the down and dirty on the truth about the driving force behind China's biggest virtual retailer.
Taobao has over 1,000,000 “virtual stores”, all bustling busily 365 days a year. A majority of these are small to midsized in scope, and run by individuals or a small handful of sellers. A local journalist documented the workings of one of these small stores and found that almost everyday they worked around the clock like a 24 hour workhouse. While the life of a virtual shopkeeper may seem relaxing to the uninitiated, only those who have tried it can truly appreciate what a laborious job it is.
“I gave my youth to Taobao.”
Eating, talking to friends and family, even washing is a race against the clock for Taobao store owners before their store starts to stagnate. In addition to pacifying impatient customers, Taobao shop owners must spend their time renovating their shop design, photographing new products, looking for defects in products, photoshopping pictures, taking orders, preparing goods for delivery, wrapping them, sending deliveries, returning items, and so on, and so on…
Let’s take a look at a regular day in the life of Ms Yue, a Taobao seller who specializes in women’s clothing.
Photograph new items in stock
Ms Yue awakens to the shrill sound of the alarm clock. After working the previous night until 3am, Yue is reluctant to get out of bed. But duty calls. Yue stumbles out of the bedroom and quickly washes up, before heading down to a high rise riverside apartment.
Yue opens the door to a well lit south facing room. Two young customer service reps briefly give Yue a courteous smile, but their fingers never stop their agile dance across the keyboard beneath. “Ding Dong”. A chat window pops up on the customer rep's screen. Another customer interested in purchasing from Ms. Yue’s clothing store. More business. More work.
Yue heads to the photography area, where a large mirror is set up beside two professional lamps and 40-50 items of new apparel lie waiting to be photographed. One-by-one, Yue places each item of clothing on the podium, finds a good angle, then crouches down to take a picture. After an arduous couple of hours, Ms. Yue finally finishes taking photos of all new items for the store.
A typical Taobao storefront
Ten minute lunch
There is a knock on the door; lunch has arrived. 1 Soy Beans with Chicken, 1 Spicy Tofu with Rice. Total $5. The two customer service girls momentarily chatter as they eat their take-out. But time is ticking; around 10 minutes later, the girls quickly finish up and return to their desks. Yue has finished photographing new items, and also returns to her desk to check out the new orders received that morning.
-13:30 ~ 18:00
Hi-ho, Hi-ho, to buyers they must go
Yue meticulously opens each of the 50 pieces of clothing to be delivered and checks for any flaws, pushing the defected items into a pile for returning to their factory of origin later on. Clothes that pass visual inspection are packed into plastic and stored in a larger sack for outgoing mail. Ms. Yue finishes this task by 16:00, and calls the delivery boy to collect the sack she just prepared. While waiting for the delivery boy, Yue as always sits steadfast before her computer, answering as many buyers’ questions as possible in order to spur their purchase. You can never have too many new orders.
A typical outlet for a Taobao store
Yue and the two customer service reps leave the office. The company has no-one working nightshift, so after hurriedly taking a few bites of dinner. Yue once again turns on the computer and starts answering buyer questions. Sometimes Yue has personal issues to solve, and has to rely on friends to answer questions in her absence, but this is a rare event for the diligent Ms. Yue. After 22:30, the tumultuous wave of curious buyers starts to wane. Yue uses this opportunity to upload the new pictures she took that morning to her online storefront.
No rest for the weary
Yue rubs her sore neck and blinks her aching eyes. It’s 2 in the morning already. Yue originally wanted to sync the new clothes to her Weibo blog, but she no longer has the energy for it. Yue staggers into the shower and washes off the day’s tension. Collapsing into bed, Yue’s exhausted body breathes a sigh of relief. But her brain keeps working, simmering each unresolved issue; how will they continue to cope with just 2 customer service reps? How will they meet client demand in the coming season with their remaining stock? Yue rolls over and shuts her eyes tight, trying to push such thoughts from her fatigued mind. Tomorrow after deliveries Yue still has to visit the factory to choose new products. The landlord is going to come for the monthly rent of $720. At 29 years of age Ms. Yue already feels like retiring. But such is the life of a Taobao shopkeeper.