You may think that mom-and-pop stores are gradually dying out, giving way to chain stores and big business, but you would be wrong. The online shopping platform Taobao is a game changer and has quietly revolutionized the way we buy and sell.
Taobao, or "treasure hunt", recently became the largest e-commerce website in terms of traffic, surpassing Amazon. It has 190 million registered users and serves the biggest marketplace in the world. Half of China's Internet users go to Taobao, either to browse, buy or sell, according to Web information company Alexa.
While Taobao borrowed its original business model from eBay when it started up in 2003, the student soon became the master. Just three years later, eBay shut down its Chinese site and now Taobao controls about 80 percent of the country's online shopping market.
It charges nothing to list items for sale and makes most of its money from advertising. It also plans to share transaction data with its users so they can cash in on buying trends. This allows anyone with an idea and a computer to start a viable business, doing away with the need for significant start-up capital. Instead of opening up a store on the high street selling to passersby, the world is every Taobao user's oyster.
A friend of mine is a typical example. She opened up a store selling children's clothing near Nuren Jie, a popular market in Beijing. It wasn't a great success but her online sales through Taobao went ballistic. She closed the store and is now e-commerce only. She's doing very well, thank you.
Effectively, Taobao has become the country's high street, but with global reach. Since China is the world's manufacturing base, it is relatively easy for individuals to source cheap goods and sell at a reasonable markup. Micro-stores are opening in their thousands every day and delivering an amazing variety of goods.
Among the more bizarre items that have been offered up for sale are perfectly preserved mosquitoes (6 yuan or $0.88); bottles of confidence (transparent, weightless and odorless); the saliva of pretty girls collected while they were sleeping; shark fins (banned); coin-sized magnets to detect earthquakes; tanks and Soviet MiG fighter aircraft; even babies - though this was controversial and much criticized.
Taobao reminds me of the London store Harrods and its motto: Omnia Omnibus Ubique - "All Things for All People, Everywhere". It had an inauspicious beginning in London's East End in 1834, but capitalized on the Great Exhibition of 1851 (known today as the Shanghai Expo) to become the world's best-known store, selling everything from alligators to Noel Coward, to yachts and airplanes.
Harrods was founded by a grocer and ended up catering to the world's elite, creating a template for stores around the world. Taobao, obviously, has a different business model but its impact could be even greater, since it not only sells "all things for all people" but provides mom-and-pop outfits the space to flourish, releasing the entrepreneurial spirit of the masses.