I am presuming you understand the benefits of shopping on Taobao. Let me begin by saying this is not going to be a comprehensive guide of how to complete a purchase on Taobao from start to end. Rather, i will attempt to explain the options available and pitfalls you may face. Note also that this guide is about making a purchase on Taobao directly and not going through an agent.
If you are newly registered as a user on taobao.com, your initial attempts to make a purchase may fail simply because you are a new user. I have encountered the situation where my order gets rejected automatically. Some sellers choose to simply not trust purchases from newbies, maybe because they have encountered fake buyers. In other cases, you may be able to speak to the seller directly (through the 阿里旺旺 online chat) and the seller will flip some switches to allow your order to go through. Proficiency with Chinese and also the ability to input Chinese characters is important to get things done on Taobao, often times.
Finding what you want, save for the most popular items like phone casing, may be the hardest part of using Taobao without Chinese language ability. Google Translate is of little help unfortunately, even though Taobao integrates Google Translate directly into their website (select country and language from the top left hand corner). When you try to do a search, suggestions will be given for the product category of what you might be looking for, but a lot of times, the search results may be imported products (which have English names tagged to them and thus they match your query and show up in the result) rather than the cheaper China products you are looking for. There’s no real solution to this other than a human translator. Anyway, i could find every damn thing i ever thought of getting on Taobao. You could try to search by “brute force”, as Taobao will show suggested products related to your search, and you could well find what you were looking for by chance.
Payment is easy – you can use a credit card. You do have to pay the 3% processing fee that credit card companies charge. If you have friends in China, you could ask them to pay for your purchases on your behalf (找人付款). This way you avoid the 3% processing fee.
It is actually quite easy to get your items shipped if you use taobao’s parcel forwarding service (淘宝集运). You can purchase items from different stores and consolidate all the items to be shipped together. The parcel will be shipped by air freight and delivered to your doorstep. The steps involved are already very well illustrated on taobao’s website. If you google for it, you will also find information from other bloggers. The good thing about Taobao parcel forwarding is that they charge you according to the actual weight of the items you buy, not by volumetric weight like it’s done for parcel forwarding from the US. The fee is actually very reasonable, but even then, it only makes sense to ship lightweight items through this means. Unfortunately, you will only know the exact weight of your shipment when your items are already delivered to the warehouse of the parcel forwarder. Anyway, you would normally have a good idea of the item you are buying and should roughly be able to guess the weight to decide if it’s worth shipping it this way. Some items cannot be shipped by Taobao parcel forwarding, such as battery and food. In such a case, you will have to ship via third party service providers who provide “sensitive” air and sea shipment.
One problem you may have contend with is dealing with local courier delivery failures. Sometimes, the item may be damaged enroute to the warehouse and the person handling the receipt of goods may have to reject the parcel and send it back to the seller. You will have to negotiate with the seller to either send the item again, possibly paying for the shipment again, or do a refund. Sometimes you have to accept that the seller will refuse to do anything.
Taobao now also provides a shipping option called global direct, whereby the shipping cost is already included in your order, so you just need to make payment once, which makes things even easier especially for beginners.
Update: see my new post on Taobao shipment options.
For bulky items, you will have to use freight forwarders who ship by sea. There is a lot of competition in this business, so the pricing is more or less standard – RMB500 – 550 per cubic metre of goods (to shipping to Singapore). If there is any company or site that charges more than this (and there are many), you can forget about it! One caveat though – you need to be somewhat proficient in Chinese as these services are mostly provided by the Chinese.
One cubic metre is a huge volume for typical consumers, and it is especially useful for those who are bringing in goods for home renovation, such as tiles, lighting and furnishing. The process of engaging a sea freight forwarder typically involves getting the warehouse address from the forwarder company and a specific code to denote your shipment. Then you can go ahead and purchase the items on Taobao and ship them to the address you have obtained. Once all the items have arrived at the forwarder, you will be quoted the final shipping cost, which you can pay via money transfer (do so at Chinatown). When the goods have arrived at the Singapore warehouse, you can self collect the goods or arrange for the transportation (at additional cost). You also need to pay GST on the goods upon collection (the value from one cubic metre of goods will most certainly cross the threshold that attracts GST).
If you have friends who are Chinese nationals, you could ask them for advice on doing the sea freight shipment, as many of them would have done it before. You might even want to combine your purchases with other people and do a consolidated shipment.
If you still feel Taobao is too daunting for you, you can check out Aliexpress, the Taobao site that is catered to the International audience. All items are shipping included, so it’s really easy, and the prices are still decent, though the product offerings will be less than that from Taobao.