Blind youngsters venture into online business

Updated: 2012-02-13 13:31


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SHANGHAI - Shen Chenxian's online store on business-to-customer website seems no different from others gaining popularity among millions of Internet-savvy shoppers in China.

What makes the store unique, and recently a winner of an industry award, is that Shen and some 20 customer service assistants of the store are all blind people.

Equipped with screen reader software, which can "translate" characters on the web into voice for blind or visually impaired users, the staffs are able to type and communicate with customers by using computers especially designed for the blind.

The founding members of the online store, named "Creating New World With Hearts," are four visually impaired people led by Shen, who lost eyesight in 2003 due to glaucoma, an eye disease that leads to optic nerve damage.

"I felt I was discarded by the whole world when I became blind," says Shen, who had majored in landscape designing at college but the disease smashed her dream of becoming a designer.

The young girl gradually came out of the shadows after she began to learn how to use computers specially designed for blind people.

"I was thrilled by the design of the computer and screen reader software and realized that I am not a useless person and I could do something," Shen recalls.

She then persuaded three of her blind friends to join her and open the online store in 2009, selling various wares including clothes, shoes and watches.

The financial requirements for opening an online store are low, compared to the costs of establishing a high-street business. Correspondingly, the competition for business is extremely fierce.

Not until 39 days after the opening did the store clinch its first order, a hand-warming stove sold for only a few yuan.

"I couldn't believe it was true when we received the first order, and I thought there would be more business if only we persisted," says Gu Min, another co-founder.

Their business began making profit about half a year later.

Having acquired enough experience, the group then shifted their core focus from online sales to customer service outsourcing.

They have recruited and trained more than 20 blind or visually impaired people to join their group and undertake outsourcing customer service for six other online stores.

He Ruiyun is one of the customer service assistant who sits seven hours a day in front of the computer to answer questions of online buyers and deal with orders.

Aided by the software, the assistant could respond so quickly and fluently that few people would realize they are chatting with a blind person.

"Now I can handle several customer inquiries at the same time," He says.

Yet they still face challenges, especially when a customer sends a picture over to inquire, as the software has no way to translate pictures into voices.

At such times, He has to seek help from her parents or from online friends via the instant messenger tool Tencent QQ.

Their efforts have gained them not only profit but also encouragement from business peers, as well as netizens both visually impaired and sighted.

Last month, the store was named "the online store with the most growth potential" on the platform.

An Internet user with the screen name "Ye Ru" said in a message posted on the online store's webpage, "I've read news of you and your store. You are really amazing! Please keep on going!"

Another one, "Lalala122127," said, "I got to know about your store through TV reports. I really adore you and I am in full support of you."

Their online store has also caught the attention of the China Association of the Blind and the Shanghai Labor and Service Center for Disabled Persons (SLSCDP).

Zhao Weishi, deputy director of the SLSCDP, says their venture into online business is a new model and is an inspiration to other disabled people who are looking for self-employment opportunities.

And the group have a yet more ambitious plan, says Zhang Ping, their chief technical officer. With the help of experts from the Shanghai Association of the Disabled, they are preparing a training course to help more visually impaired people obtain the know-how of online business.

"We are planning to build a platform from which other disabled people can also benefit and acquire online employment skills," Zhang says.

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