Taobao beginners guide

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.

Account registration
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. Continue reading Taobao beginners guide

Taobao product recommendation – LED lights

LED lights is the first thing i will recommend anyone to get from Taobao. In case you don’t know the merits of LED lights – it saves you more than 50% of electricity (as compared to fluorescent lighting aka CFL) and potentially lasts much longer. I did a rough calculation and my estimation is that i can break even on the change of CFL to LED lighting in less than 2 years. It may sound drastic, but i have changed almost all the lightings in my home to LED even though the CFL tubes have not yet broken down.

When i did my home renovation for my current home, more than 4 years ago, i installed LED downlights for the living room and also the doorway area. Each LED downlight cost me a blood sucking price of S$28! Barely 2 years later, 2 of those LED lights broke down. I was reluctant to pay the cost of getting an electrician to replace them. Finally, I decided to do it myself. I bought the LED lights from Taobao, at an unbelievable price of 9.8 Yuan each for the premium ones. This equates to S$2.3, which is less than 10 times my original buy price! The replacement work was actually very easy, although i accidentally chipped away a small bit of the false ceiling.

3wdownlight
The 9.8 Yuan downlight

Buoyed by the success, I was determined to change the rest of the frequently used lighting in the home to LED ones – those in the living and dining room, kitchen as well as all the bedrooms. These consisted of two types of CFL light tubes – the PL-L 4P 36W and PL-C 13W. Here’s what they look like if you’re wondering:

PL-L
PL-C

It took a while to search on Taobao, because if you searched by those very search terms (PL-L and PL-C), it will be the CFL light tubes or other unrelated products showing up in the search result. The search terms to use are 2g11 led and g24 led. 2g11 and g24 refer to the base pin configuration of PL-L and PL-C respectively. To get comparable brightness, the wattage is the one that is slightly less than half that of CFL. For the 36W PL-L, the corresponding LED is 15W, and the LED is housed in a casing with the exact same length as the 36W CFL light, so you can’t get it wrong. If you do the sums, you save 58% electricity when you switch from CFL to LED. I found the brightness to be about equal or slightly dimmer, and it works fine for me. For a bedroom, you typically need 2 of these light tubes, so instead of 72W, you’re down to using just 30W.

For the PL-C light, you have many choices in terms of the wattage (and correspondingly the length), so you have to be careful to choose one that will fit into your downlight enclosure. For my 13W PL-C, i chose the 7W LED, for worry that if i chose the 5W one, it will turn out to be too dim. 7W is about 54% of the original 13W wattage, so the result was a very significant increase in brightness, and i can tell you it is “shiok” (exhilarating) as it makes your home feel like one of those brightly lit shopping malls! For L-Box downlight, as compared to a centrally fitted light, you need to have extra brightness to achieve sufficient lighting. To get that extra brightness at about half the electricity usage is extremely satisfying.

There are many sellers of LED light on Taobao, and as usual i chose the sellers with the highest sales volume, as the sales volume is a testament to these sellers being reliable. The 15W 2g11 LED cost me 48 Yuan (S$11) each while the 7W g24 LED cost me 23 Yuan (S$5). The pricing is not much more than their CFL counterpart actually, so i don’t see why anyone should be buying CFL anymore.

 

A note on the colour temperature of the light: you probably already know there are 3 types you can choose from – white, cool white, and warm white (basically yellow). In terms of Kelvin, these are 6000-6500K, 4000-4500K and 2700-3200K respectively. White is simply 白, cool white could be 暖白 or 自然白 or 中性光 while warm white is 暖黄 or 暖白. You have to read the specification of the seller very carefully to choose the colour that you want. If cool white is what you want and it is not among the options available, check with the seller if they offer it. If they do, you can ask for it by leaving a remark when placing your order.

plcdownlight
G24 LED in the downlight housing

Now, for the installation of the lights, the PL-C or G24 type of light requires just plugging the CFL out and the LED in. That’s because, by design, the ballast and stater of the CFL is built into the PL-C lighting, and correspondingly, the driver circuitry of the LED is also built-in.

Swapping the PL-L for the LED is a little more involved, because you need to do some re-wiring to bypass the ballast and starter, which MUST NOT be used in conjunction with the LED. Fortunately, the design of modern lighting is such that you can do wiring quite easily, much like how you do it on a breadboard. I tripped the circuit breaker a few times while doing this, but nevertheless, i got the job done myself. Disclaimer: do this at your own risk, and if you are not confident, engage an electrician. See picture below to see the finished job.

pllled
2g11 LED – note the wires leading from the ballast and starter (which are already removed from the socket) are not connected to anything

Update 14 Jun 2016

One year on after switching to LED lights, they became noticeably dimmer, especially for the pair of cool white PL-L (probably because it was used more frequently). I will have to do a replacement purchase, but i don’t really mind that. Something for you to keep in mind.

Update 18 Feb 2017

Besides the LED downlight and the 2 types of LED light tubes i have mentioned above, there is also the integrated type that is becoming very popular now. The integrated type means that the LED light strips are built-in and inseparable from the housing. There are pros and cons to this of course – it comes ready for installation, and you need not worry about purchasing nor installing separate light tubes, but if it breaks down, or becomes too dim over time, you’ll have to replace the entire fixture.

Some of these look very nice, and my preference is for the minimalistic ones, but some of those made for and according to Chinese taste look “obiang”, or Singlish for out-of-place ugly. The search term to use if you want to look for the minimalistic LED are “LED办公室吸顶灯” and “LED办公室吊灯”, which really means lighting for office space.

Check these out:

I bought this one for a home office space, and it has a volumetric weight of 0.09 CBM
Extremely fanciful but with a nice effect
Create any combination you want

And the “obiang” ones:

Do you want this in your bedroom?
Or this for your living room? It looks out of place in the showcase photo

These light fixtures are huge in size when packed for shipping. They are just a tad smaller than typical furniture items. There is only one way to ship them – by sea freight. Here’s how you can ship them to Singapore – 86OF.

What to do with your disused fluorescent light

Don’t bin them! They can be recycled. Please walk the extra mile and bring them to one of the collection points for recycling! A little goes a long way.

Check out my newly published definitive guide.

Taobao product recommendation – Orico Dual Bay Hard Drive Dock

These days, with everything going digital, everyone needs some kind of digital backup storage (to store photos, videos, documents etc.). It can be in the form of an external harddisk, thumbdrives, cloud storage (Dropbox, Google drive etc.) or the now-probably-obsolete optical disks (DVD, Bluray). In terms of safety, probably nothing can beat cloud storage, since it is managed (someone guarantees the safety) and it is offsite (you’re fine even if your house is burnt down). To store a large amount of data (in the Gigabyte range), though, it is probably not practical to use cloud storage, since it will be expensive and considerably slow even with the high-speed internet we have today. I’m a cheapo when it comes to.. well, everything, and my choice of a digital backup storage is a hard drive dock.

Prior to this, i used DVD-Rs to backup photos. Although cheap, it is quite a chore to burn the DVDs, plus, if you missed out some files, you may not be able to add to the already burned DVD. The size of DVDs at 3.7GB is usually not enough to contain all your photos, so your photo back up will span a few DVDs, and it is again a chore to load and eject DVDs if you wished to view the photos. The next lowest cost storage available is the hard disk. A hard disk overcomes all the shortcomings of a DVD, except it may not outlast a DVD. Hard disks have a typical life span of 2 to 8 years, with the added risk that they may fail abruptly at any time. The way to tackle this problem is to have redundancy – do the back up onto two or more hard disks. The likelihood of both hard disks failing at the same time is small enough to make this solution workable. In fact, the practice of having redundancy of hard disks has become standard to the point that a standard is actually devised, called RAID 1. For the average consumer, to be able to take advantage of RAID 1 simply means buying a hard disk enclosure or a Network Attached Storage (NAS) that supports RAID 1. The price point of such an enclosure is around US$70 at present (this excludes the price of the hard disks). The advantage of using RAID 1 is that you need only to do the back up once and it will be automatically duplicated onto the hard disks. If, at any point in time, one of the hard disks fails, you can simply replace the failed hard disk and all the back up data will be duplicated onto the new hard disk automatically. The disadvantage of RAID 1 is, well, the price. You do have to pay a premium for having this facility.

The alternative to RAID 1 is to duplicate the back up data onto each of the hard disks manually. This simply means you need to back up the data more than once (usually twice, since two hard disks is normally sufficient redundancy). I have chosen this as my back up solution, because the hard disk enclosure/dock without RAID 1 is far cheaper. I managed to get one from Taobao at 126 Yuan (S$28) – Orico dual bay hard drive dock (USB 3). Orico is a well known Chinese brand that’s sold on Amazon as well. At this price point you can forgive the slogan ‘Easy your PC’ (a literal translation from Chinese that’s supposed to mean making PC usage convenient) and the past tense of back up being spelt ‘backuped’.

Orico_dock_box

You can plug either 2.5 or 3.5 inch hard disks into the dock. Obviously, a 3.5 inch hard disk is cheaper, so you’ll go for that. I got Toshiba 1TB drives since they are the cheapest available (S$61) and they cost only marginally more than the 500GB one. With only 2 years warranty, these probably will not last much longer than 2 years, if it will last 2 years at all, but redundancy takes care of that anyway. At any point in time, if one of the hard disks fail, you’ll get a replacement and copy all the data into the replacement hard disk, and you’re safe again. And the beauty is, neither brand/model nor the capacity matters. You can just get any harddisk that has at least the same capacity, or more.

Orico_dock

First test run of 10GB back up took 4 minutes to be copied into both hard disks, not bad. To make it easier to copy files to both hard disks simultaneously, i used the utility n2ncopy. My 4 years old laptop didn’t have USB 3, but thankfully it came with an ExpressCard expansion slot. I got hold of a USB 3 ExpressCard from Taobao for 38 Yuan (S$8.50), which is dirt cheap. So, for a grand total of S$166 (inclusive of shipping cost), i managed to put together a 1TB redundancy back up solution with decent data transfer speed.

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.