Source Parts on TaoBao: An Insider’s Guide

For hardware aficionados and Makers, trips to Shenzhen’s Huaqiangbei have become something of a pilgrimage. While Huaqiangbei is a tremendous and still active resource, increasingly both Chinese and foreign hardware developers do their sourcing for components on TaoBao. The selection is vastly greater and with delivery times rarely over 48 hours and frequently under 24 hours for local purchases it fits in nicely with the high-speed pace of Shenzhen’s hardware ecosystem.

For overseas buyers, while the cost of Taobao is comparable to, or slightly less than AliExpress and Chinese online stores, the selection is again, many, many times the size. Learning how to effectively source parts from Taobao will be both entertaining and empowering.

XKCD: Up Goer Five

Understanding How Chinese Works is Helpful

You can find nearly anything on TaoBao, if you know the Chinese name for it. This doesn’t mean you need to speak Chinese, but you should understand how it works. While the site can be navigated using Google Translate, it can’t accept English language searches. Figuring out what an object or part is called in Chinese is therefore the first and largest challenge. Once you find that string of characters you don’t need to be able to read it any more than any other snippet of code needs to be human readable in order to be manipulated. So long as you know roughly what the code represents that’s all that you need.

In Bunnie Huang’s Essential Guide to Electronics in Shenzhen (yes, it is (absolutely essential), Bunnie compares Chinese to XKCD’s Up Goer Five. This installment of the comic uses “only the ten hundred words people use the most often” to explain all the parts of a rocket. It’s a very accurate analogy, and once non-Chinese speakers grasp this they are able to more accurately define their search terms when sourcing online. A few thousand words are used to describe a huge number of components. Often in a pretty intuitive way if you break it down.

A 电脑 (Diànnǎo), directly translates as “Electric Brain” or a computer in English. While most Chinese characters have diverged so far from their origins to be unrecognizable — 电 (Diàn) or “electric” is one you’ll see a lot. This character is a representation of a cloud with a lightning bolt going to ground. Likewise, a 手机 Shǒujī or “Hand Machine” is a mobile phone, and 手 still looks a bit like fingers on a hand.

If you keep this structure in mind — that Chinese part names are rarely one dedicated word, and more of a semi-intuitive set of keywords — it will make finding those names much easier.

Finding Your Part by Name

Some parts you can simply use Google Translate, but sometimes it’s not specific enough or returns the wrong context for that word. In that case, it’s best to use technical websites that have been localized into Chinese as a resource.

For electronic parts the .com and .cn versions of the Mouser site are interchangeable. Mostly just the category names are translated but that can get you very close and is useful for working with Chinese engineers. You can send them the URL of the type of part you want, there is a picture and no confusion. They can do the same for English speakers but in reverse.

So:

http://www.mouser.com/Sensors/Capacitive-Touch-Sensors/_/N-1b8oy/

becomes

http://www.mouser.cn/Sensors/Capacitive-Touch-Sensors/_/N-1b8oy/

For mechanical parts, Misumi offers similar functionality by replacing “us” with “cn”.

https://us.misumi-ec.com/vona2/mech/M1500000000/M1501000000/M1501030000/M1501030100/

becomes

http://cn.misumi-ec.com/vona2/mech/M1500000000/M1501000000/M1501030000/M1501030100/

Refining your search

Google Translating “switch” will get you “开关” You can paste that into the TaoBao search field and get a large and somewhat random collection of mostly AC light switches. But if we make the string “开关 DPDT” things start to get more useful. When possible add the numbers for the voltage, amperage etc. required and it will get you a lot closer.

If we see something pretty close to what we want we have two options, the first is to mouse-over the product image. An orange bar will come up, it may give you the option to “找相似” or “Find Similar”. Clicking on this will bring up things that are close, but not identical to that product.

If there is no option to “Find Similar” you can copy the Chinese description into Google Translate for more useful keywords.

6只脚DPDT蓝色MINI小型SMTS-202双刀双通钮子开关 YW2-102

and Google Translate tells us the string “双刀双通钮子开关” is “Double pole double button switch”. A search using that string gets us a large number of similar switches to choose from.

Finding Your Part by Image

Taobao has a very clever search-by-image function. If you have an image of the part you want you can use that to search. It’s the little camera icon on the right hand side of the search bar.

This has a number of uses: finding the upstream distributors of products, finding unauthorized copies of products, and seeing if new Crowdfunding campaigns are based on pre-existing Chinese products.

Making Your Order

Unlike Amazon, the “Buy” button on Taobao is more an invitation to chat about buying with the store owner. There’s usually a certain amount of required conversation. Some non-Chinese speakers copy and paste a “sorry I don’t speak Chinese” boilerplate but many stores won’t fulfill an order based on this because they are concerned that miscommunication will lead to a bad review which will cost them more than the profit on the item.

This process of chatting for more than half of all orders and lack of a straightforward shopping-cart-and-buy-it process means it can be difficult for those who can’t read Chinese to make TaoBao purchases. They also don’t accept PayPal and while supposedly there is a process to accept Western credit cards I don’t know anyone who’s set it up successfully.

Fortunately, there are services that will simply take care of this on you behalf. You send them links to the products you want and for a modest fee they take care of the rest. These brokers buy the items, charge it to your PayPal or credit card, accept the packages on your behalf, consolidate them and then forward them to you. Usually, the cost of the item plus this service fee is still less than purchasing the same items through AliExpress and gives you access to a far larger selection.

Some TaoBao brokers (in no order):

When in Shenzhen, Ringy provides translation services for free over WeChat and can have the packages sent to your hotel.

  • WeChat: ringyringy

Things to Avoid

“Will it be ready by Monday”

Never ask if it will be ready by a specific date, the answer will almost always be “yes”. There’s nothing much you can do if it’s not, so they have no reason to lose the sale. So when dealing with your TaoBao broker don’t ask “Can they have it ready by Monday?”, instead ask “What day do they say it will be ready?” and you get a much more accurate answer.

In general, this pattern should be followed when sourcing in China. Ask “What colors does it come in?” before the much more problematic “can they make it in pink?”. It’s far easier to be successful when working within the supplier’s established timeline and product range then starting out with something new.

“What do you want it for?”

Never answer this question from a store owner. This means they want to know if they can substitute something else based on what imagine will suffice for your requirements. Why would a 3D printer heated bed need an expensive sheet of PEI? Acrylic should be fine. You’ll get a very nice sheet of PEI colored acrylic for a bit less than the cost of PEI but a lot more than what acrylic costs. Stick with the item as listed on the BOM, if they don’t know what it’s for there is more risk of a substitution failing immediately and a poor review.

Avoid buying anything that has not been reviewed by other buyers.

Are their fake reviews? Sure, tons of them (although it’s getting better). But they cost money for the store owners to purchase and usually there are authentic ones as well — that’s cost sunk into that listing. If a listing has no feedback, a store owner loses nothing by simply taking it down in the event that you (or the agent on your behalf) gives it a bad review.

Don’t Bargain Hunt

The “get it cheaper” part is already done with when you made your choice to use TaoBao instead of a distributor back in the West. Further attempts to save money will result in problems. Everyone on Taobao sources from the same factories, if an identical or very similar product is much cheaper there’s a reason for it. Look at the top five most popular listings for a part, the average price of those or higher is what you can expect to pay.

While there are certainly challenges to sourcing on TaoBao, for any hardware enthusiast the vast, and frequently customizable selection available make it a very useful resource and skill set to have should the need arise.


Naomi Wu is a hardware enthusiast and Shenzhen native. The above guide was compiled with the generous assistance of the Shenzhen hardware community.

58 thoughts on “Source Parts on TaoBao: An Insider’s Guide

  1. You can easily add a “western” CC to your taobao account. dirtypcbs.com do offer a consolidation and taobao purchase forwarding. You pay them and get a HQB address to send your stuff to. Check them out, much cheaper than those agents.

    Buying from taobao is super fun while in Shenzhen, you can spend a day scouring through the hqb markets and not find what you wanted, or you can order it on taobao and find it by your apartment complex guard the next day.

  2. Thanks for the good advice!

    Please let me give an advice, too. NEVER talk about yourself at 3’rd person, and NEVER add self validation statements like this: “Naomi Wu is a hardware enthusiast and Shenzhen native. The above guide was compiled with the generous assistance of the Shenzhen hardware community.”

    It makes you look insecure, and makes readers wondering themselves why do you need to justify yourself without a direct question from somebody else.

    Otherwise, it was an interesting read, well done!

    1. Or, maybe Naomi didn’t add that bit of text at the bottom.
      Perhaps it was added by the editors of HaD seeing as she is effectively a guest author and not everyone will know who she is or what authority she is talking from.
      It’s not a new thing to do (both on here and generally in professional publications).

      Was the italics text too subtle?

      1. Yeah. Such blurbs are pretty much standard for newspapers, etc. (They have been slowly getting replaced with clickable links, but again – I see such blurbs all the time)

      2. Since you asked a direct question, it would be rude to ignore it.
        Subtle? No. Misused? Maybe. I don’t know.
        https://www.google.ro/search?q=when+to+use+italics

        I don’t want to argue here about my personal opinions/advice, and I totally understand some people might require an “authority” to tell them what is good and what is wrong.

        As I already said, for me the writing was interesting no matter who wrote it, so welcome @Naomi Wu, I’m looking forward for your new writings.
        :o)

        1. I think articles should have their titles at the end rather than the start. I don’t want to argue here about my personal opinions/advice, and I totally understand some people might require an “authority” to tell them what is good and what is wrong.

      1. My first thought when I got to the end of the article was “Cool article, I wonder what Naomi’s background in this stuff is?” Then boom, there was a nice little blurb at the end separated neatly with italic text. Perfect.

        So yea, ignore that guy.

    2. Standard Hackaday author attribution. Just like “[Jenny List] is a director of Oxford Hackspace”, or the same type description you’ll find where relevant on a host of other posts on this site.

      1. I think you just inadvertently taught me what those two letter codes are in so many ebay listings. SZ = Shenzhen (subtracting out “hen” x 2 ) I presume a lot of the other codes are other major Chinese cities? I’m going to have to pay attention to this. :-) Thanx. :-)

      1. Well, Forbes did a profile on her so if she wasn’t famous before, she is now! (spoiler alert: she was already!)

        She’s a social leader and guerilla maker. She even bakes open source! https://twitter.com/RealSexyCyborg/status/846824923188228096

        Her infinity skirt is so cool, it makes me want to make an infinity hat. It would be the geekiest nerd hat ever. Like a disco Gandalf. See, this is what she is doing to the world. It is a fashion revolution! With no screws.

    1. Could you tell us where you ordered from when you got scammed? Intermediaries like AliExpress and Ebay are supposed to provide you with some protection against scammers, although the ones who sell counterfeit goods, rebadged chips etc are harder to catch.

      1. I second his request, most of us have gotten burned on one transaction or another (burned on ebay twice, I still shop there but there are sellers I avoid).

        Please tell us where you got burned so we can avoid the place or at least have full knowledge of what we’re getting into if we choose to buy from that place.

    2. I’ve had no problems with AliExpress, other than one seller who sent slightly sub-par goods which were creatively photographed to look better in the listing. He gave me a refund very quickly.

  3. It’s pretty sad that “assume the place is full of scammers” is valuable advice. “Caveat Emptor” is no way to run a country. China really needs to sort it’s shit out, the honest companies who sell quality products are suffering because nobody can tell them from some kid with a bedroom full of stuff he nicked out of the bins round the back of a factory. A multi-billion dollar black market is no foundation for an economy. Does the PRC government only keep total control over what their citizens say and think? Not interested in the way they do business?

    Back when the Silk Road was still going, I heard it was normal for people’s orders of Class-A drugs to come through with no trouble. Very few scams. Says something for China when a bunch of drug dealers are more honest and reliable than they are.

    What do the Chinese people think of all this? I’ve heard the Chinese attitude is that to rip someone off is seen as wise, clever, good business, making extra profit out of nothing. I wouldn’t want to be in one of their tower blocks in an earthquake. How do they live in a country where everything is third-rate ersatz garbage? Where kettles heat water by simply passing mains voltage through it? Xmas lights where the LEDs are at mains potential connected by cheap bell wire.

    Is it something to do with going from a country of peasant farmers, to a modern high-tech consumer society, in the space of a couple of decades, rather than centuries in the West?

    1. You are spot on.
      You also have to consider how individuals in the Chinese Parliament are primarily
      of the “Lost Generation” (Born mid 50’s to early 70’s). Of which these people merely
      DO NOT care about any sort of occupational safety and health.
      I work for a Chinese dude in a computer store from this. Basically made a business by swapping easily-serviceable computer parts. (HDD’s, RAM, PSU, etc.) Economy has changed now a days for the worst, and people aren’t willing to pay prices they used to for repairs, Thus making this business model irrelevant.

      This guy stacks laptops like Pancakes, and graphics cards in piles like greeting cards. Places a powered on heat-gun in a cardboard box. No regard whatsoever for cleanliness, organization, or keeping track of inventory.
      Gets away with all of it by brown-nosing the license inspector.

      They live like nomad rats too. Never settling down in one location for any amount of time. And living with parents, grand parents, children and wife. Guy could theoretically just sit home and sing Kumbaya, not even working.

      Fuck cultural/religiously instituted “family values”, nobody is there for you at the end of it all.

      1. Actually, it’s the culturally/religiously instituted Jude’s-Christian values and Protestant work ethic that still undergird the US/UK (despite them now being largely atheist) which mean you don’t think the Chinese way works.

        1. Like they’ve all been doing since about 2005… Sure it might have come from the brand itself, but it’s a “fake” version of what they used to sell.

          Early 2000s it was all, “we can’t afford to manufacture in the west any more.” moved production to China, quality halved, a year or two later, price doubled, WTF??? If you were gonna double the price, can’t I have the freaking quality back???

          Shoes are the ones that piss me off the most, every year used to pay 50 or so for a new pair of runners/trainers/sneakers brand name, leather upper, then they rapidly went 70, 90, 120 for shit that falls apart in 3 months has plastic coating on the leather, making the leather useless (not breathable, unfeedable) no cushioning/shock absorption in sole, and they probably crack across that and let the rain in. The price/quality metric has broken also, I can’t judge likely quality by price in $20 to $200 range, because they’re equally likely to be the same crap. In fact since then, I’ve done better with some cheap ones than some higher priced ones… but only relatively better, not as good as pre-2005ish where my feet would be 100% comfortable. How did retailers help their suffering consumers? Did they raise hell up the supply chain? No they dropped their return policies to like 15 days… obviously because they didn’t want to carry the can for shit falling apart in a month or two.

          Am I blaming the Chinese manufacturers directly for this? No, the Brands say. “Can you make X 10 cents cheaper.” and they say “sure thing.” and take another mm out of the sole and replace with cardboard under insole, and an executive gets his bonus for increasing Q4 profits.

          1. Think about cellphones. Old Nokias are still famous for being almost indestructible, while your new iPhone/Samsung/Huawei/Chinese brand/whatever will break if you drop it. Nokias’ batteries lasted for an entire week, but your new phone probably needs to be charged at least once every two days.
            Yes, Nokias did not have HD touchscreens, internet (except high-end and later ones), built-in cameras and fancy games with lots of virtual stuff to buy with real money (I’m looking at you, Supercell), but they had completely offline games without ads, spyware and in-app billing, which were much better than today’s crap.
            Early Nokias had a crappy LCD and couldn’t play digital audio, but making Rtttl ringtones was easy. Two-beep notifications are MUCH easier to hear than a “pop” or a tweeting bird. Using those phones was straightforward: you just entered a number and pressed the dial button, instead of having to find the phone app in your home screen full of colored icons and waiting for it to load. Even with the crappy screen they were usable. Messages were painful to type with the numeric keypad, but they’re still painful to type with an on-screen keyboard which has no tactile feedback and an annoying spell checker.

            Everything got worse thanks to heavy globalization and outsourcing, from shoes and phones to food.
            What about Xinjiang and Chinese tomatoes? You’re eating them every day.

      1. You think craigslist is bad, you should see what they sell at the box store! Half the products in there will have a different package next year because this years package will be found to be dishonest.

        In my country they even let people put the words “US GOVERNMENT” in caller id information, even if it is really a guy from [redacted] who wants my credit card number. How are honest local thieves supposed to make a living when my government lets thieves from [redacted] impersonate them openly?!

    2. The main reason for “buyer beware” is that the market is intended for Chinese buyers and we’re just there like a bunch of Vikings trying to get some loot anyways. It is natural in a gray market attached to a legit market for there to be increased crime and a lack of formal endorsement of honest deals. This is guerrilla maker territory.

      Anyways, most of these accusations are just ignorance of the cultural differences, combined with lots of assumptions. Some idiot who thinks just because somebody substituted a part and he called the person a bad name, that bad name must be true. Whereas the next person didn’t call him a bad name at all, but talked to the person and got a refund or exchange. The first idiot goes and tells everybody they got stolen from! Even though, he just didn’t understand that the substitutions are to be expected, and it is just a cultural difference in the way that things are ordered.

      It is wise to substitute a cheaper part when it will work just as well is a natural, universal truism, and give it to some self-righteous idiots and it takes them only a few seconds to come up with some nonsense claiming the Chinese think it is wise to steal.

      Also, it is a perfectly natural form of competition for the people who know which part can be safely substituted to make a bit more money than the next person.

      In China if you go to a village and buy all the bananas in order to corner the market, and then you jack up the price, that is punishable by death. It is seen as a very, very dishonest trade practice. In the US, you’d get a medal from the local chamber of commerce.

      If you don’t want to understand the local culture in another place, it is a lot better to just buy from a reseller that operates a western market. I buy a lot of parts from the amazon marketplace that get mailed from HK. If I wanted larger quantities for a product I’d buy from a local distributor anyway, because importing has the same liability as manufacturing and the local distributor has the experience and insurance to manage those concerns.

  4. As somebody who has bought a lot of stuff through taobao via agents over the years – at last count, 44 orders, about 17 thousand dollars worth, of small parts none of which are worth more than a few dollars each, mostly a few cents each, so hundreds of thousands of parts I expect – I acttually find myself buying more and more on Aliexpress.

    Buying on Taobao carries more risk and pitfalls than on Aliexpress, and provided you don’t mind waiting for the slow boat and having lots of small packages arrive instead of a box load every month the sticker price is seldom much better on Taobao than Aliexpress, it’s probably the same sellers anyway.

    I’m sure if I dealt direct with Taobao vendors, and had good written Chinese, that I could probably get better deals on Taobao, but as a westerner using an agent you are only going to get the marked price on Taobao. Very seldom will that be any discounted price either, and most agents will not use cheap slow-boat shipping, so by the time you’ve paid international shipping, agent fees, domestic shipping in china, and the product price itself, the cost is at least on par with Aliexpress, sometimes more expensive.

    That’s not to say I don’t still use Taobao, I buy a few hundred dollars from there every month, but it’s mostly for the convenience of being able to quickly restock items (usually which I have previously sourced from Taobao) all in one go rather than in dribs-and-drabs.

    Presently fwiw I use SpreeNow as my agent, previously have used Bhiner and TaobaoFocus – Bhiner did some dodgy stuff a few years back so I dropped them, and TaobaoFocus was risky to use when buying sub 1CNY parts as they used to charge you 1CNY per item minimum and then refund the difference if you were lucky. SpreeNow is mostly decent, mostly. But buying from Taobao you never do know exactly what you’ll get, and there’s no real come back.

  5. Nice article but a little too brief.

    Long time taobao user (I live in Hong Kong and work is Shenzhen). I buy the majority of my electronics from taobao. Prefer taobao to the Shenzhen markets which are a nightmare when you have specific things to buy.

    Understanding and accepting what you are buying is a major point. If you are buying something very cheap it is a fake or has fake parts. Many shops will opening admit this now, although just as many will state everything is genuine when it is obviously not.

    You can bargain and should do so especially when buying multiple units. You may not get cheaper prices but I often get free delivery or some small gift thrown in. A lot of shops give repeat customer discounts (you need to be pushy). I have a few favorite shops and get extra discount from them now.

    Many shops don’t know about the product they are selling, especially electronics. If you need to confirm specs or want additional information, taobao is probably not the place for you. It is great of you know exactly what you want though.

    Customer care has come a long way in the last couple of years and most shops now offer some kind of guarantee or refund (not the same level as in the west), the buyer will need to cover any courier fee though. As the main article implies, sellers are very concerned about their rating and will often give this priority over other things.

    A short while ago they tightened up the accounts system and I am not sure if you can open an account from outside the intended markets. My wife uses an account from Hong Kong and we had a lot of hassle when they changed the system (it didn’t help that she lost her password either). We ended up opening a new mainland bank account just for her taobao addiction.

  6. ” These brokers buy the items, charge it to your PayPal or credit card, accept the packages on your behalf, consolidate them and then forward them to you. Usually, the cost of the item plus this service fee is still less than purchasing the same items through AliExpress and gives you access to a far larger selection.”

    That’s arbitrage! It’s amazing it can exist in such a liquid market!

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