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Food for thought, thought for food

By Zhang Lei and Ji Xiang | China Daily | Updated: 2012-09-07 10:29

Food for thought, thought for food

Peter and Mike examine online orders. Provided to China Daily

Two Britons are trying to answer the demand among expatriates in China for hard-to-get books and household items

How far would you travel and how much time would you be willing to sacrifice to lay your hands on a block of cheese? Mike Austin used to have to travel 90 kilometers twice a month to satisfy his need for dairy products. A Chinese person who loves chou doufu, or stinky tofu, and who is living in a remote Scottish village would no doubt appreciate Austin's predicament. Peter Bruce, a friend of the Scotsman Austin, and who, like him, has lived in small Chinese cities, has also found it difficult to obtain what he considers daily necessities, things he had taken for granted back home in London. Austin and Bruce, both English teachers in Beijing, found that they were far from alone and decided to tackle the problem by opening a shop to cater to this obvious demand.

But realizing that opening a shop would require a hefty financial outlay entailing considerable risks, the pair opted for online trading, Bruce says. Not only that, but after much thought the pair decided that beyond foodstuffs, one area in which expatriates were particularly ill served in China was books in their own language.

"Books seemed like an obvious choice," Austin says. "Many Chinese bookshops offered books in English, but these tended to be classics or study material, so we decided to offer a broader range."

Thus was born Zablaz, the name from Austin's recollection of a character he encountered during his childhood, a mythological two-headed dog.

"As a name it's pretty easy to remember," Bruce says.

But while they decided they would focus on books, they would also cater to other expatriate bread-and-butter demands, which now account for 20 percent of the business' activity.

"There's growing interest in the other categories of items we now stock, so we are focusing more on these items," Austin says.

With the books, finding non-mainstream titles can be a challenge, he says. In the long-term their aim is to find whichever niche items are lacking in the market and provide them.

Austin says: "We listen to customers, what they are looking for and then aim to source it, hence the diversity of items on the site, from mincers, to macaroon trays and pestle and mortars, to obscure superhero costumes and region-specific monopoly sets. If you want it, we will do our best to find it."

Reaching the people the site is aimed at has required a lot of networking with smaller expat communities, Austin says.

"Zablaz is designed to fit expats' needs specifically. We also aim to involve our customers in shaping our product range and improving our service. This is difficult for big sites to do, especially as the expats are a very small and marginal market to them, whereas for Zablaz the whole site and setup are designed to fit their needs."

Bruce says that while living in smaller Chinese cities can have its drawbacks, there are also advantages.

"Life in smaller cities can be an engrossing experience for expats. We can pick up Mandarin more quickly, engage more fully with daily Chinese life without retreating to safety zones like foreign restaurants and chain stores, and often learn a greater diversity of local culture than in the tier-one cities. This said, having access to Western literature and home comforts through an easy-to-use English language system is a nice option to offer through services like Zablaz."

The online shop has opened his eyes to how wide tastes are, he says.For example, a journalist contacted the site recently looking for a Korean translation of a biography of the American novelist Cormac McCarthy. "We are still hunting for it," Bruce says.

Just how wide the selection of books on offer is can be seen in the 39 languages covered, as diverse as Greek, Lithuanian, Welsh and Zulu.

Austin says the website's customers tend to recommend it to friends and this has provided the greatest spurt to Zablaz's growth.

"It's great to hear comments from happy customers. But it's more satisfying to hear about a problem, act upon it, and improve the service to ensure that the situation isn't repeated."

But Zablaz does not need to be big, Bruce says. "To run efficiently we need to be vigilant and ensure we're listening to what we need to improve on, proactively chasing feedback rather than sitting back and waiting for it to come to us. A business is nothing without its customers, and it's up to you to engage and excite them."

Austin, who, like Bruce, now lives in Beijing, says: "Personally, I've realized that as long as you're doing something that you enjoy and believe in, you never find it difficult to motivate yourself to push the business forward.

"I came to China in 2005 with my family. We were lucky enough to be able to witness the incredible growth of the country. Seeing the changes the country went through so quickly was definitely a major factor in motivating us to begin the site."

Bruce says: "The potential for exciting experiences in China, not necessarily business related, is what drives me. There is so much diversity and so much still to see."

Austin says: "We plan to continue to provide the services we currently offer, and are constantly on the lookout for products and services to add based on the requirements of the customer."

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