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