Taobao – the secret retailers wished you didn’t know

Let me relate how i sourced for Christmas gifts last year. My wife teaches piano, and she does give out Christmas gifts to her students every year. The gifts were typically stationery, sourced from one of those books and stationery fair. Last year, we came across 3D puzzles in a Metro departmental store, and i thought these would be excellent gifts for her students, for Christmas or otherwise. With these 3D puzzles, you construct a 3D structure out of cardboard pieces. They seem fun, for boys and girls alike. The price was a problem, however. At $10 each, they are definitely not within the reasonable price range of gifts for the students.

I reminded myself i had to do a check on Taobao to see for how much these 3D puzzles were sold in China. Afterall, it had a Chinese brand name, so it had to be cheaper on Taobao. Guess what? they were 7 to 13 Yuan (S$1.55 – S$2.85). We ordered them on Taobao without hesitation.

Besides Metro departmental store, i have seen these 3D puzzles being sold at other shops. I suspect many of these shops found their suppliers from Taobao. I always wondered, for how long more can these shops survive, if eventually, i presume, most people will know where to find them cheaper? Well, I think they can survive for some time, because it will still be many years before people are willing to learn about Taobao and other online shopping options. People generally still do freak out at having to complete an online purchase, let alone doing so on a platform in a language they’re not comfortable with. I hope to dispel these fears with some guide on how to buy from Taobao and other online sites.

Singapore is especially suited for online shopping business because of its compactness – goods delivery is cost effective. Also, rising labour and rental costs in Singapore makes retail sale in a brick-and-mortar shop more and more risky. At the same time, international shipping of goods direct to consumers have become a lot easier. All these spell disaster for traders and retailers. Anyway, that’s how a free economy should work. The labour force should be directed to where they are most needed. Meanwhile, for the rest of us, save serious money!

Amazon product recommendation – barista tools and coffee beans

My coffee adventure started with the purchase of a Krups espresso machine, which became the subject of some of my first few blog entries. The purchase of the espresso machine was triggered by the gift of a pack of coffee powder from Ipoh. You must be wondering how a pack of coffee powder from Ipoh (the traditional Kopi type coffee powder) can be used in an espresso machine. You’re right, it couldn’t. I actually did try, and, well, you can imagine the result you get with very coarse ground coffee in an espresso machine. Sadly, not too long after i had the machine, it went back into the box and got stashed away for more than 5 years. I guess my taste buds were not yet ready to appreciate coffee for what it is.

I don’t remember what was the motivation, but out it came from the box and it sat on my kitchen table top again, a year and a half ago. I decided to do it right this time. Now that i have proper filtered water (the absence of which was noticeably affecting the taste of the coffee previously), i was sure i will arrive at a better result. I got serious – i decided to upgrade the tools. Back then (yes just a year and a half ago), the only logical place I thought I could source for the tools was Amazon. Now, well, you know, anything can be found on taobao, for a fraction of Amazon’s price. My recent one day transit in Beijing has revealed to me that China is now a serious coffee consuming nation, so it’s no surprise that taobao has a proliferation of coffee related products.

The tamper definitely had to be upgraded. I’ve read more than once people referring to the plastic tamper that normally comes with an espresso machine as “silly”. Now that i’ve had some experience with tamping the coffee powder, i concur. I got myself a stainless steel tamper, because the ones with a wooden handle cost more than I was willing to cough up. Now that you can buy from taobao, well, nothing is really out of reach. So, contrary to the title of this article, when it comes to buying a tamper, i would suggest looking it up on taobao. The search term is 咖啡压粉器. Quick check on price – CNY 35 to 200.

The next item I thought I should get was a coffee bean grinder. I initially thought i should get an electric grinder. After reading some reviews however, i learned that a blade grinder may not be a good idea, since the stainless steel blades may impart a metallic taste to the ground coffee, and it may be difficult to get the exact grind size you want. Someone recommended that a manual ceramic burr grinder is the best option. I took the advice and got the Hario Mini, from Amazon. This product is sold at departmental stores in Singapore, but Amazon’s was slightly cheaper, even after factoring in the shipping cost. Now, however, contrary to the title of this article again, i doubt Amazon is the best place to get a grinder. You can find the Hario Mini at a lower price on taobao. Search for Hario or the general term 咖啡磨豆机. Price check – CNY 115 to 170 for the Hario. By the way, at this point of time, i am actually waiting for a new grinder to arrive. I must say that manual grinding can be a little tiring, but that’s a compromise i’m willing to make to get fresher coffee. There are electric burr grinders in the market, but the reviews are not so positive, UNLESS you’re willing to spend an equal or higher amount of money on a grinder than you do on an espresso machine, in which case you might get something decent.

The final tool I got was a pitcher for frothing milk. Ok, I must have got the name of my article wrong, because taobao is again the place to get the pitcher now. The term to search for in taobao is 咖啡拉花杯. Quick check on price – CNY 13 to 150.

baristatools
A group photo for my tools. The weight of the tamper helps. I would imagine that a wooden handle will give a more comfortable grip.

With the tools in place, there is one final item needed to make coffee – the beans! This is one item that doesn’t make sense to get from taobao, because China has to import the beans as well. Amazon is a good place to buy the beans, but there are some things to note. Firstly, coffee is not eligible for the free AmazonGlobal Saver shipping. You will have to ship via a forwarding service. Also, the coffee sold on Amazon may be more expensive than if you bought directly from the seller’s own website, so you will have to do proper homework before you buy. I must have sampled no less than ten different varieties of coffee from Amazon. I think I could recommend this one – Dark Guatemalan, good taste and good value. Coffee beans sold in Singapore are generally quite expensive (and they tend to be already ground), so I think it’s worthwhile getting them from the US, from Amazon or other websites.

The best credit cards for overseas travel spending

Note: this post is specific to Singapore. Feel free to browse my other articles if you’re a visitor from the other corners of the world 🙂 

For all my past trips, I have been using the Manhattan credit card for overseas spending, the reason being it rewarded 5% cashback. Subsequently, it was cut to 3%, and I continued using it for overseas spending since I was lazy to find out if there was a better alternative.

Things have changed with the introduction of the ANZ optimum card. It rewards 5% cashback on dining and hotel spending. Before I continue, let me state the disclaimer again that, other than being a regular customer, I am in no way affiliated with any bank mentioned in this article.

Alright, let’s first discuss the transaction fees involved in cross-border transactions. As of now (July 2015), the published cross-border transaction fee for the ANZ optimum card is 2.5%, comprising of 1.5% that ANZ charges and 1% that MasterCard charges. For the SCB Manhattan card, it is 2.5% plus a variable rate of 0.2% to 1% that SCB claims MasterCard charges. It looks like ANZ fixes the MasterCard fee at 1% even though in actual fact it could be a variable rate that is possibly lower than 1%. Nevertheless, the fee charged by ANZ is obviously still the lower of the two. If you consider the cash rebate, the 3% you get from Manhattan is not even enough to cover the transaction fee which is 2.7-3.5%. On the other hand, the 5% you get from ANZ covers the 2.5% fee, and leaves you with another 2.5% to offset the currency exchange premium. Clearly the ANZ optimum card is far better.

Before embarking on my trip, i called up ANZ to find out if paying for hotel stays qualify for the 5% cash rebate. The answer was affirmative. With that, i was set on using the ANZ optimum card for the trip. Afterall, the major expenses incurred while travelling are on hotel stays and meals.

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Towards the end of my trip, a statement cycle had lapsed and i received the bill from ANZ. I earned $258 in cashback, not bad! The Manhattan card has a cap of $200 in cashback per quarter, whereas there is no cap for the ANZ card.

The other major category of spending on an overseas trip is of course shopping. The card I chose to use for shopping was the M1 Citibank card. This card offers a 5% cash rebate if you chalk up over S$3000 of retail purchase in foreign currency within one statement cycle, capped at S$200 (i.e. up to S$4000 spending). That is easy to achieve when you visit Japan (cosmetics), USA (outlet branded goods) or Europe (branded goods). Otherwise, if your spending is under S$3000, you only get a 1% rebate. The rebate comes in the form of Citi Rebate, which you can only redeem by spending at participating merchant stores. Well, the merchants do include supermarkets such as Cold Storage, Giant and Sheng Siong, so it’s as good as cash. By the way, you don’t have to be an M1 customer to apply for the M1 Citibank card.

Update 19/11/15: There is another card that bests the M1 Citibank card – UOB Visa Signature card. You earn 5% rebate with just a minimum of S$1000 worth of foreign currency spend, INCLUDING online spending in foreign currency! The cashback is capped at $100 per month, which allows one to spend up to the equivalent of S$2000 in foreign currency per month. In fact, you have to accumulate S$2000 worth of spending in order to do a cash credit redemption (UNI$4000). It is easy to spend S$2000 when overseas. Just charge the shopping, admission tickets and rental car etc. to the card. If these don’t make up S$2000, then charge your hotel bills and meals too. Here’s a tip: if you use Agoda for hotel booking, then you should definitely use the UOB Visa Signature for payment to get 5% rebate (be careful to choose USD or better still, the original foreign currency of the country of destination for the payment when you do the booking!). Online payments for hotel doesn’t count towards getting 5% cashback from the ANZ Optimum card.

Update 15 Apr 15: UOB Visa Signature test drive result.

Update 12 Apr 17

CIMB credit cards look pretty good for overseas food and hotel expenses, you get 10% rebate for up to S$600 worth of spending plus zero admin fees! I would use CIMB for the initial $600 worth of food and hotel expenses respectively, then switch to ANZ Optimum or UOB Visa Signature.

Update 16 Nov 18

Well, ANZ has ceased to exist, and both the Citi M1 and UOB Visa Signature cards no longer offer 5% cash rebate. If you pump petrol at SPC then you still get the equivalent of 3.33% rebate from UOB Visa Signature. CIMB Visa Signature credit cards remain the same. Standard Chartered Manhattan offers 3% rebate for above $3000 spending in local or foreign currency. Perhaps the YouTrip card is the better deal now.

USA West Coast

Probably all tours to the west coast of the USA will include San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Grand Canyon in the itinerary. The typical must-sees are found in these places and they are within reasonable reach of each other by car. My trip starts with San Francisco.

wpid-wp-1433600551307.jpgThe Golden Gate Bridge is the main attraction.

wpid-wp-1433600544943.jpgLocated along the way to the Golden Gate Bridge is the Palace of Fine Arts.

wpid-wp-1433600538007.jpgPier 39 is good for watching sea lions.

Most people should know about outlet shopping in the US. Gilroy is an outlet along the way from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It has one of the very few Abercrombie and Fitch outlet stores. There are plenty of outlets in the west coast. In Los Angeles, Citadel Outlets is the one to visit.

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A queue forms outside the Kate Spade shop.

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Coach offers 50% discount. The same discount was also offered at their Las Vegas outlet store. Could be a permanent marketing strategy and it works.

wpid-wp-1433600517162.jpgThe Grove is a shopping mall in Los Angeles with a nice ambiance, worth a visit if you have the time.

wpid-wp-1433598252017.jpgHollywood is famous for its walk of fame. Visit at night to see the glitzy lighting.

wpid-wp-1433598079078.jpgDisneyland is one of the few theme parks in Los Angeles worth visiting even if you are not traveling with kids. The night time parade, fireworks and lights show is bound to leave you wowed.

wpid-wp-1433598135031.jpgA jubilant mood on the main street after the show.

wpid-wp-1433600491196.jpgNow that Disney owns the Star Wars franchise, they have added a Star Wars attraction – the Jedi Training Academy. Kids love it.

wpid-wp-1433566679419.jpgLas Vegas is the next logical stop after LA. Las Vegas is famous for gambling (of course), shows and food (specifically buffets). The fountain in front of Bellagio is not to be missed.

wpid-wp-1433597050124.jpgBased on reviews I went to the Bacchanal buffet at Caesars Palace. It was the best buffet I have been to (granted I don’t normally go to expensive buffets). At USD57 per pax it was very good value. Service was impeccable. The food was almost made to order. The Alaskan King Crab legs are a favourite item among diners. I was most impressed that the Chinese section tasted authentic Hong Kong style (I’m sure they hired a Hong Kong chef).

wpid-wp-1433598059265.jpgDo get there early (6pm) if you intend to dine at Bacchanal. Once the tables are fully occupied, you will have to queue. As you can imagine, people take their time to enjoy a buffet, so it will be a long wait.

wpid-wp-1433600509680.jpgAfter the filling dinner it helps to do a bit of strolling along the strip. You might want to check out the original Venetian Canal Shoppes.

wpid-wp-1433600459302.jpgLas Vegas offers a chance to catch up on outlet shopping if you have not been fully satiated on previous attempts. Pictured above is the Las Vegas Premium Outlets North.

wpid-wp-1433566668096.jpgOn the way to the Grand Canyon, the Hoover Dam is a popular stop. Not very interesting in my opinion.

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Degadillo’s Snow Cap is a much more interesting stop, and the food is actually not bad. They close at 6pm, so it would be a nice tea break or early dinner stop.

wpid-wp-1433600482923.jpgThe Grand Canyon. I’ll just let the pictures do the talking. I took on the recommendation to hike some way down the canyon and it truly offers a nicer perspective on the canyons.

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wpid-wp-1433566633646.jpgIf you’re fortunate you might see an Elk.

Amazon product recommendation – breast pump

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If you care about your child’s immune system, you will breastfeed your child for at least a year. From experience (contrasting my first and second child who received 7 months and 14 months of breast milk respectively), i can testify that breast milk does wonders to the child’s immunity to flu and viral infection. A breast pump makes breastfeeding much easier, and that certainly helps you persist longer with the chore of breastfeeding.

We went with the popular choice – Medela Pump In Style Advanced Breast Pump Backpack (also available in Tote Bag). Back then, this was sold in Singapore for S$639, which is quite a bit more than what it costs on Amazon (around S$270). Unfortunately Amazon isn’t a seller of this product, so you will have to pay for the shipment to Singapore, but you will still save heaps versus buying from the local distributors. You might be worried about the difference in voltage for appliances in the US (110V vs 230V here). Not to worry, you can get a compatible adapter from a shop in the basement of Sim Lim Tower for just S$15. If you worry about not having local warranty on this product, well, from experience i can say that the Medela Pump In Style is very reliable and i cannot imagine it will break down under normal circumstances.

pumpinstylestarter

Medela now has a Starter Set-Model for the Pump In Style Advanced, which i think is a very good deal, at US$135 (S$180). As pictured above, it is the bare minimum equipment for pumping breast milk. Since i travel every now and then, the standard package (backpack version, which includes a battery pack and a cooler bag) was actually more suited for me.

If you do get hold of a breast pump, you must also get a hands free breast pump bra. With this bra my wife would be able to fiddle with her phone while the pumping was in progress. I can’t imagine anyone having the patience to hold the pumps by hand!

ANZ Optimum World credit card test drive results

optimumdollarStandard disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with ANZ bank and what follows is purely my personal opinion.

Finally received the bill from ANZ. This is the very first time the 5% rebate of the Optimum World credit card came into effect, since this is the start of the April – June quarter and they only announced the arrival of this new card in January. I was eager to find out if the 5% rebate really worked, especially for overseas spend. It did.

A quick summary of how this card works: you have to choose a category of spending for which you’ll get 5% rebate, out of the 4 categories comprising of dining & leisure, travel, shopping and groceries. I chose the dining category, because few other cards offer a rebate for dining expenses (furthermore you earn 5% regardless of whether it’s weekdays or weekends).

From the start of April, i spent a total of S$171.49 on food related expenses, including a meal in a restaurant in Malaysia and snacks from a shop selling traditional foodstuff in Malacca. I’m surprised that even the expenditure on the snacks was included for the rebate. These earned me, with rounding factored in, 8 Optimum$ (equivalent to S$8).

The rest of the spending (including that from a supplementary card) came up to a total of S$3078.39. These earned, with rounding factored in, 30 Optimum$ (equivalent to $30). So i got a total of S$38 in rebates, not bad. Though, on hindsight, it would have been better to spend using the Manhattan credit card, which gives 3% of rebates for spending above S$3000, which means i would have gotten S$97.50 of rebates. Alas, it’s difficult to coordinate and anticipate the spending from 2 cards (main and supplementary).

All in all, i’m very satisfied with the cash rebates for this card. I’m going to use it for all my dining expenses on my upcoming trip. At 5%, the rebates will significantly offset the extra fees and unfavourable exchange rates when swiping a credit card overseas.

Amazon product recommendation – Mason jar food sealer

masonjar

Ball Mason Jars are canning jars, intended for home canning of food. To do that, the traditional method was to heat the jar and allowing it to cool. Due to steam escaping from the jar, a vacuum is created when it cools down and this keeps the lid tightly sealed over the jar. The removal of air and thus oxygen in the jar prevents mold and some bacteria (which causes food to spoil) to live, allowing the food to last longer.

jarsealerziplockstarterkit

There is now an easier way to remove air from the jar. The FoodSaver Wide-Mouth Jar Sealer is an attachment that fits on top of the Mason Jars. It is a simple device that allows you to suck air out of the jar, and you don’t actually have to use the FoodSaver System (quite costly) to do that. I learned this from Salad in a Jar. You just need to get the Ziploc Vacuum Starter Kit.

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I use the jars to store salad (keeps it fresh for a week instead of lasting just 2 days), honey lemon preserve (vacuum optional), sliced ham, evaporated filled milk, sauces, coffee beans and so on. They are almost infinitely reusable and will save you a lot of money in the long run.

I cannot understand why retailers don’t bring in Mason Jars to sell at mass market prices. A quick check on the internet shows that online sellers generally sell each Mason Jar at S$8! That is A LOT more expensive than the price on Amazon (US$17.90 for 12 jars which is only about S$2 per jar). Unfortunately Amazon no longer offers the free shipping to Singapore on this item. Thank goodness i managed to get the free shipping, but the 12 jars i have are barely enough to go around now. You still do get free shipping with the Jar Sealer and Ziplock Vacuum Starter Kit. By the way, the Mason Jars come in regular and wide-mouth versions. Get the wide-mouth version, which obviously has a wider mouth that makes filling or removing food from the jar easier.

Update 25/3/2016: i recommend getting this suction pump from Taobao instead of the Ziploc Vacuum Starter Kit.

Here are the links for your convenience:
Wide-Mouth Mason Jars

Wide Mouth Jar Sealer

Ziplock Vacuum Starter Kit

Amazon product recommendation – sonic toothbrush

I first came across a “sonic” toothbrush when browsing for a replacement powered toothbrush in a Watsons store. They had the usual rotary type of powered toothbrush, which i had been using before. Out of the blue, they also carried an Arm and Hammer Sonic toothbrush. I had no idea what a “sonic” toothbrush does, but took a chance and bought it.

The first time i tried it, i found it preferable. The brushing feels more thorough than the rotary type toothbrush. The Wikipedia entry on electric toothbrush explains how a sonic toothbrush works. Unfortunately, i think this type of toothbrush is still not very common in Singapore. Watsons no longer stocks (they had it for less than a year) the Arm and Hammer Sonic toothbrush. It could be that it was not generating enough sales, or possibly because Oral B dominates the market and had more say on who gets to stay on the shelves. Oral B also makes sonic toothbrushes now (probably forced to respond to the competition).

spinbrush

Anyway, after using the battery powered Arm & Hammer Spinbrush Pro Clean Powered Toothbrush for a while, i decided to upgrade to the Arm & Hammer Spinbrush PRO Clean Sonic Rechargeable Toothbrush (requires the use of a step-down transformer though). At that time, this was one of the cheaper sonic toothbrushes available.

rechargeablespinbrush

The other popular option was the Philips Sonicare range. Prices seem comparable now (but the replacement heads are still expensive). Having read the Wikipedia entry though, i think i will upgrade to ultrasonic toothbrushes in the near future. If you have not tried a sonic toothbrush, i recommend that you give it a go.

The other oral care product you might want to consider using is the Waterpik Waterflosser. As the name suggests, it flosses your teeth using water. It won’t replace a real floss, but certainly aids in flushing out food trapped between teeth, especially for the molars which are harder to reach with a floss.

Update

Check out my review on the new sonic toothbrush i am using now.

Amazon product recommendation – automotive parts

fram

I suspect not many people know this – you can actually buy automotive parts on Amazon. Many of these parts are eligible for the free AmazonGlobal Saver Shipping. The prices are ridiculously lower. It’s a no-brainer, buy from Amazon!

At the very least, you can buy air filters which you can easily change yourself (just search Youtube to find out how). A generic cabin air filter costs me close to $30 from the workshop. The FRAM branded one pictured above (has added baking soda and carbon to freshen the air) cost US$15.99 (~S$21.60).

filterbyvehicle

Amazon helps you to refine your search results to show only those that fit your car, which is very handy, though it will sometimes filter out results that actually do fit your car, since the car model for the US market may be slightly different from those sold in Singapore (or it may not be available in the US market at all). Therefore, you should do your due diligence to find out the exact part number you want to buy.

For the Bosch Platinum IR Fusion Spark Plug pictured above, i was quoted S$85 for a set of 4 from a local shop. It costs US$7.72 each on Amazon, which comes up to US$30.88 (~S$42) for 4, so it’s literally half priced! By the way, i could feel a difference to the engine performance with these spark plugs.

To be honest, i don’t know much about car parts. If it didn’t occur to you before, i trust that now, you, car expert, will be most delighted to source your parts from Amazon. For me, brake pads is next..

How to get Free AmazonGlobal Saver Shipping

amazonglobal

The “Free AmazonGlobal Saver Shipping” deal allows you to ship your Amazon order to Singapore for free if you buy US$125 worth of products sold by Amazon.com that are eligible for the AmazonGlobal Program. How exactly do you know upfront (without going to the check-out page to see the shipping cost) if you will get free shipping on the product(s) you want to purchase?

refineby

Amazon recently made it extremely easy to check for the eligibility of getting the free shipping by allowing you to filter your search results to display only those items that are eligible for free international shipping to Singapore. You do have to limit your search results to a single department to access this filter option.

amazonshipto

If you are in the product page, you can check the eligibility for free international shipping by first selecting your shipping address in the add to cart box. Then when you choose the specific option of the product (e.g. size, colour) that you want, eligibility for free international shipping will be indicated right next to the product price.

amazonfreeshipping

If you care to know, the most basic criteria for the eligibility to get this free shipping is that the product item must be “Ships from and sold by Amazon.com“. Many products are fulfilled by Amazon (i.e. ships from Amazon) but are sold by other merchants. You don’t get free shipping to Singapore on these products. Unfortunately, i found out that many items that i have attempted to buy, that are shipped and sold by Amazon, also turned out to be ineligible for the free shipping, for unknown reasons. It could be due to the product brand owner not wanting to allow parallel import, or complications involving some product categories, such as food.

amazonshipsg

On the “About FREE AmazonGlobal Saver Shipping” page, a guideline is given that states that “Offer does not apply to items larger than 18” x 14” x 8” or over 20 lbs.”. This is actually a very generous allowance. Imagine shipping an item that’s 9kg from the US via a courier service – it will cost you a bomb!

A point to note: the Amazon product page automatically selects the seller that offers the lowest price (inclusive of shipping fee), and this may supersede Amazon themselves. If you want to get free shipping to Singapore, you will have to buy from Amazon. Usually, the slightly higher price you pay to buy from Amazon is well worth it since you get free shipping to Singapore. See example below:

amazonexample
The item sold by Amazon ranks fourth place in terms of lowest price, but you should definitely click the “Add to Cart” button on the Amazon seller.

The shipments to Singapore are mostly handled by two courier services – UPS and i-parcel (apparently bought over by UPS as well). From experience, i-parcel delivery is faster. Unfortunately you don’t get to choose the courier service for your shipment. UPS now leaves your package at the Shell station nearest to your home in case the delivery attempt failed, which is a good idea. Anyway, there’s no reason to complain when you’re getting FREE shipping. Thank you Amazon.