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A 360buy.com stand at the China Beijing International Fair for Trade in Services in Beijing. The leading e-commerce website reached an agreement with the Suzhou Yangchenghu Lake Crab Association on Wednesday to become the first authorized online store to offer authentic Yangchenghu Lake crabs. [Photo/China Daily]
Although crab season officially starts in China in September, e-commerce websites are already offering crabs harvested from Jiangsu province's Yangchenghu Lake in an attempt to attract lovers of the seafood.
During the annual Mid-Autumn Festival - which will fall on Sept 30 this year - one of the most popular delicacies to appear on Chinese dining tables are hairy crabs drawn from Yangchenghu Lake. Compared with other freshwater crabs, those caught in Yangchenghu Lake are said to have fatter eggs and tastier meat.
The widespread belief about those attributes is reflected in their prices. Crabs harvested from Yangchenghu Lake generally cost between 50 yuan and 150 yuan ($8 and $24) apiece, whereas regular freshwater crabs go for about 10 yuan.
The busiest time for crab sales is often from mid-September to November. Even so, many Chinese e-commerce websites allow shoppers to order them as early as late June.
Online stores started to become popular among crab buyers in 2009, largely because of the lower prices they offer. Shoppers have also found they can save time and effort by buying seafood on a website rather than in a physical store.
On Wednesday, 360buy.com, a leading e-commerce website based in Beijing, reached an agreement with the Suzhou Yangchenghu Lake Crab Association, allowing it to become the first authorized online store to offer authentic Yangchenghu Lake crabs.
"The cooperation will help us avoid fake and low-quality crabs," said Zhang Shouchuan, vice-president of 360buy.com.
Many people have said they like to shop for Yangchenghu Lake crabs online, Zhang added.
"It is convenient and (the crabs) can be delivered to their homes," he said.
Yang Weilong, chairman of the Suzhou Yangchenghu crab association, said e-commerce websites are gradually playing a greater role in the sale of crabs.
"Previously, we ignored e-commerce websites, but they emerged as formidable distribution channels and demonstrated a strong ability to expand," Yang said.
Every year, about 2,500 metric tons of crabs are harvested from Yangchenghu Lake. Some of the crabs are sold at more than 1,000 brick-and-mortar stores in China and Southeast Asian countries, according to statistics from the association.
"We are talking with a bunch of e-commerce websites, including Tmall and yihaodian.com," Yang said.
Tmall.com, the biggest online shopping website in China that provides a platform for businesses to trade with consumers, has attracted hundreds of crab sellers since 2009.
Hu Jiajia, 23, lives near Yangchenghu Lake and opened an online crab store on Tmall.com in 2009.
His e-store, which is called Hu Nong, started accepting online orders in July.
"People in big cities such as Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai consume most of the Yangchenghu Lake crabs," Hu said. His online store has been undergoing a rapid expansion and has managed to nearly double its sales every year. In 2011, it sold 150,000 crabs, a record number, and it expects to see an even better performance this year.
About 80 percent of the crabs Hu raises are sold online, he said. The rest go to local crab dealers or are cooked in households for customers who have made the trek to Yangchenghu Lake.
"To be honest, it's becoming harder and harder to have strong sales," Hu said. "The competition is pretty fierce now."
More than 200 harvesters of crabs from the Yangchenghu Lake region have set up e-stores, up from about a dozen in 2009.
Chen Shousong, chief analyst with Analysys International, said selling crabs online will become more popular, saying it is convenient for both dealers and buyers.
"But selling crabs online requires one to have a good warehousing and shipping system, which is a high barrier to starting an e-commerce website," he said.
Chen Limin contributed to this story.