Raising a Child in Chengdu: Sourcing Baby Products

Note: This post is the seventh in a series chronicling the adventures of an American having a child in China. If you haven’t been following, you can start at the beginning of the series here or check out more Chengdu Living series posts.

On March 17, the China Economic Daily reported on a spate of cases in Shanxi in which young children fell ill, suffered brain damage and died after taking standard immunization shots prepared by a company with no official certification. According to reporters, the company not only lacked the license required to legally administer immunizations, but employees also lacked necessary training. It was employee incompetence that contaminated the shots, leading to tragic effects which afflicted hundreds of children in this particular instance.

Overwhelming Evidence of Danger

sick childAnother recent case in Shanghai found that tablets meant to prevent infantile paralysis actually led to infants contracting diseases. After local authorities investigated the matter, they found similar cases across the nation. In an essay for China Health Care Blog, Damjan discusses the shortcomings of China’s Food and Drug Safety Administration and summarizes the improvements that need to be made, while also listing scandals and setbacks that have severely tainted China’s food safety inspection process.

A Proclivity for Foreign Goods

There might be hope for China’s ability to regulate its food and medical industries in the future, but for now, Chinese mothers are not taking any chances. The formula and immunization tragedies have driven many Chinese families to search for imported products that they feel are free from such dangers. In fact, many mothers are not satisfied with merely imported goods — they don’t  trust anything that was made in China. The goods have to originate abroad in order for them to feel truly safe. The demand for foreign children products goes beyond formula and medicine: families are willing to pay top dollar for foreign-made strollers, soap, bras, pumps, DHA pills, diapers and anything else they can get their hands on, including old folk remedies like gripe water.

Put simply, Chinese mothers want what foreign mothers have.

How to Gain Access

Buying through an informal network of friends is, so far, one of the most common ways to gain access to foreign goods. A mother might have a cousin, friend or spouse with access to American-made goods (sold in Toys’R’Us for example) and has a box or three sent over filled with a wish list of goods — everything from nipples to knapsacks. The mother with the connection then posts a notice on a websites catered to local mothers (like cdmama.cn) and an auction ensues; first come first serve.

There are several local businesses that should be able to take advantage of this market, but the women are picky.baby drinking imported milk Chengdu has several Carrefour, Ito Yokado and Trust Mart outlets and all of them carry foreign goods, including baby products. In Chengdu, a lot of local mothers have so far eschewed Metro because they believe there is no real difference between Metro and Carrefour, they believe the price in Metro (located in Chengdu on 2nd Ring Road) will also be more expensive than buying through an informal network and they’re put off by the fact that entry requires membership.

Weighing the Cost and Benefit

There are two major problems with products sold in these large chains:

  1. Most of their “foreign” products are actually manufactured in China, and this makes them unacceptable for many Chinese mothers who are increasingly picky about what products are considered safe for their child. They want assurances that the goods are from America, (or Holland or Japan) and that American, Dutch and Japanese mothers are using the same products.
  2. Products that are manufactured abroad tend to carry very high prices. The mark up from a friend selling via the Internet is much less than Ito Yokado’s mark up, so economics also play a role, but it’s scandals like those mentioned above that keep Chinese moms wary.

The distrust runs so deep that any product sold in China is considered fake or dangerous or both. There are several posts a week on Chengdumama.net asking if a certain product sold in Carrefour or Ito Yokado is “real” or not. The only baby products Chinese mothers seem to trust are the new clothes knit by friends and relatives, certain Traditional Chinese Medicine tinctures, salves and rubs and second-hand clothes passed down from a mother with an older child.

Online Options & Vaccinations

The only significant business avenue open so far is Taobao.com, the Chinese eBay. Taobao is remarkable for its trustworthiness and reliability in a country that currently thrives off of cheating the unaware. You would think that a web-based platform in which one can easily hide or erase an identity would be rife with thieves and liars in a developing country like China, but as far as my Taobao logoexperience goes (and most other people I’ve spoken with), Taobao merchants take pride in delivering the goods. Naturally, with anything like ebay or Taobao, “Buyer Beware,” but Chinese mothers with the means and the desire are flocking to online options.

As for vaccinations, Chinese mothers are faced with a “to do or not to do” dilemma based on the fears stirred up by events like the recent Shanxi tragedy and the trust put into long-standing hospitals like West China Second University Hospital and newer, Western-style hospitals like Angel Obstetrics and Gynecology Hospital. Global Doctor and Parkway are both available to anyone — Chinese or foreign — and most Chinese hospitals offer “imported” vaccinations and shots as well as domestic, but the imported ones carry a considerably higher cost: domestic vaccinations are free!

Conclusion

In total, I have sent five separate packages back from the US to Chengdu, filled with baby stuff. I am just the messenger, my lady Xiao Bai is the brains behind the operation. She has a respectable inventory of goods and is willing to take orders, for now. But in the future, we might have to get a Taobao storefront up to satisfy demand.

Check out our forum to discuss the subject further, or leave comments & suggestions below. Thanks!

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About Sascha

Sascha Matuszak is a writer and commentator on domestic and international culture and politics. After living in Chengdu on and off for twelve years, he now lives in Minneapolis.

35 Responses to “Raising a Child in Chengdu: Sourcing Baby Products”

  1. Do you know what you guys will be doing for vaccinations yet? My son will only be about 9 months old when we move to Chengdu so i know he’s going to need some vaxes while we’re there… and, well, that, more than anything else we want to be super ultra extremely careful with.

    • We will be using Global Doctor and I think that that is the best option in Chengdu right now. My wife has a Taobao Shop:

      http://store.taobao.com/shop/view_shop-d33014a9d0554f4d66f04fb7fabf42e8.htm

      she’ll be putting stuff up there on a regular basis 😉

      • Thank you!

        I can’t read Taobao. 🙁 2 years of chinese class taught me less than if i had read a conversational chinese book, ironically. I need to study up before August!

    • you can search for the products you want and the English names are usually available. We’ll get an English name for all of the products on our site … if you find the search space on the site and type in what your are looking for, it should work. but yes, you should learn a few handy words like:

      成都 – Chengdu,奶粉 – Baby Formula,尿布 – diapers

      you can copy and paste these characters

  2. Ben

    Thanks Sascha. Another great article. I know that I will be referring back to these in the not too distant future.

    I would set up a taobao store as soon as possible. I use taobao all the time. The sooner you’re on there, the sooner you can start building good reviews and the more business you’ll get.

    • Thanks! I have it easy/cheap, my son doesn’t take formula (only breast milk) & we cloth diaper, so I never have to buy those things. I think more than anything i would need access to western food for myself since i’m the pickiest eater in the world. For things like macaroni & peanut butter would you suggest using Tao Bao or stores with food imports?

      • I would suggest buying at the outlets like Carrefour or Metro. Metro is on the west side of the city and they have everything you could want for decent prices. A membership card is easy to get. Also I have it from a trusted source that a Sam’s Club is on the way. Sabrina’s on Ke Hua Road North near Consulate Road also has American stuff for sale. So no, I would not suggest Taobao for peanut butter and stuff like that.

  3. I’m surprised to read this: “Taobao is remarkable for its trustworthiness and reliability in a country that currently thrives off of cheating the unaware.”
    I don’t know why anyone would trust Taobao more than anyother Chinese store, online or not. That said, we included Taobao in our own recommendations for how to get safe(r) baby formula, but we only recommend with a very big caveat: by a small amount at first and inspect the product and packaging extremely carefully.

    We get imported name-brand Dutch formula via Taobao for the same price or cheaper than the name brands on store shelves in China. A mom from the UK imports directly from a UK store and only pays (I think) 170元/900ml. That’s roughly comparable to the better name brands in a Chinese Carrefour in Tianjin. Details here: Foreign baby in China essentials: IMPORTED BABY FORMULA

    • Ben

      The reason I trust taobao is because I can read reviews from people who have bought the same product from the store. It also shows a rating for the store in how many good/bad sales they have had.

      • Charlie

        Negative reputation on Taobao is definitely a flag for extra caution, but be mindful that Taobao vendors can and do pay for positive (fake) reviews of their products.

        I try to buy locally if possible, opting to meet with the seller if it’s an item over a few hundred kuai. I got good deals on all sorts of things by doing this (a camera lens, LCD TV, music equipment, etc) while minimizing risk.

        Taobao is great though, a Taobao post on Chengdu Living is definitely overdue.

      • Ben

        In my opinion the opposite is true. If you meet a seller in person then you loose some of the protection that taobao’s payment scheme offers. When you buy on-line taobao holds your money until you are satisfied you got what you paid for, you can then release the money to the seller. I have had disputes with sellers before, and in 1 case received 50% off because the item didn’t work as advertised. I didn’t want to return the item as it still fulfilled my requirements.

        I understand what you are saying about sellers paying for good reviews. However the seller still needs to make a profit, and so needs to sell to real customers who will give real reviews. In the end a seller who relies on fake reviews will slide down the search rankings. Fake reviews are usually easy to spot too. A store I looked at recently had 9000 good reviews on a 1RMB keyring.

        If you use a bit of common sense and do your research some great deals can be found on taobao. I’m looking forward to a Chengdu living article on the subject.

    • I find it remarkable because the same moms who don’t trust anything for their babies buy routinely from taobao … and everyone I know (including myself) who has shopped on taobao has enjoyed good results. Of course you have to be careful, just like with ebay, but so far i have heard more positive than negative reviews.

  4. Charlie

    I don’t blame Chinese mothers for having concern about the safety of domestic baby products. Setting up a Taobao shop does indeed sound like a great idea. Solid info, good post Sascha.

  5. Taobao will be my first choice .

    But have to be careful

  6. Here is some more information about the vaccine scandal in Shanxi from the China Media Project:

    http://cmp.hku.hk/2010/03/26/5270/

  7. We shop all the time on Taobao (it’s quickly become the primary source of goods in our household). However, and this is a big however, the vast majority of stuff on Taobao is fake.

    There is absolutely no reason to trust Taobao over traditional shops when it comes to quality and safety. It is merely convenient and offering variety.

    The thing is, fake or (more likely) domestically repackaged milk powder bought on Taobao isn’t going to have reviews like, “killed my baby.” or “gave my baby kidney stones, don’t buy”.

    Just like the quality and safety of domestic products bought the regular route, it’s not going to be a problem until it is.

    Looking for quality and safety in China isn’t something you can eyeball, fakes are far too good and crap milk powder doesn’t taste like chalk, it tastes like good milk powder.

    It has to be considered that even widely-covered scandals like those mentioned in the post affect a relatively small portion of the consumer population.

    When you consider the relative numbers of Taobao consumers vs. traditional brick & mortar consumers, it’s little wonder why massive scandal hasn’t struck yet. But it is just a matter of time — it’s simply not mainstream. Nor is it a compelling story — as it is expected. When Wal-mart sells you poison, it’s a national news story, when a relatively anonymous seller on Taobao does, you’ll be lucky to hit the local news.

    I don’t at all mean to sound cynical, and as I said, I have bought truck loads of stuff from sellers on Taobao, but if you want an improved likelihood of safety, import directly from a country that has higher (or better enforced) safety standards, or from known and trusted importers of such.

    To trust a Taobao seller you don’t know over a major retailer (ie. Toys’R’Us, which we have here in Suzhou, Wal-Mart, Metro, etc.) is barely different than trusting the guy selling watermelons out of the back of his truck on the side of the road.

    And as it relates to Taobao’s seller protection policies — seller protection only goes so far as to guarantee you’ll get the appearance of what you paid for. If it arrives intact and looks like milk powder, you’ll release the funds.

    If your kid gets kidney stones in 8 months, I’m betting AliPay isn’t going to refund the money no matter your complaint.

    Just my liang fen.

    • Ben

      Great comment Ryan. I completely agree. My previous comment strayed from the original topic.

      To echo what you posted. Taobao reviews are always given in the first couple of weeks of receiving the product. This is in addition to the fact that you don’t know what is real or fake makes taobao a risky place to purchase baby products.

      • Sigh. I wish i could come up with a surefire way to spend RMB and get a good product, but it just isn’t possible “yet.” I get diapers and stuff off of taobao, and so far we are satisfied. as for things like Gripe Water or Formula for friends, we buy from the US or Germany and have it shipped …

        • Charlie

          It sounds like you’re taking the safest route possible by importing from countries which have higher quality standards like the US and Germany. To resell some of those goods to domestic mothers who don’t have the means that you have makes it an even sweeter deal.

          Of all the things I’ve ordered off Taobao (dozens, to be sure) about 20% of them have been noticeably fake. I actually just got a pair of shoes delivered this afternoon (size 46 Nike Blaze, which I could never find locally) and even though they were 200 yuan, they look and feel as if they were the real thing. The only grounds I have for suspicion is the price. The bag, the box, the wrapping, and the shoes themselves all look 100% genuine.

          @ Ryan – great comment, you’re absolutely right. I understand that you’re expecting a child soon – do you plan to import products like milk powder from overseas as well?

          • We’re definitely hoping to go the breastfeeding route and not need milk powder, but should that — for any number of reasons — fall through, I think we will, yes.

  8. The consensus seems to be that shipping these products from trusted sources in North America or Europe is best. Can anyone advise on what shipping company is recommended and on what size of shipment is most cost effective? I hope I’m not taking the discussion off on a tangent. Thanks.

  9. There’s info here and here from someone who ordered thirty 900ml tins from the UK and ended paying about 170/each after shipping.

  10. We started using Taobao in 2005, 2 yrs after it was founded. And so far we’ve spent about 180,000 through Alipay. The past three yrs’ spending accounted for the most part. We purchased almost everything on TB. And as a mother of 2 toddlers, if you want my opinion, i can’t function without it. LOL. That’s how i got my nickname”TAOBAO QUEEN”.

  11. I lived in China for almost 1yr and my wife is Chinese. We are living in the USA now. Is it possible for us to sell items on Taobao from here and ship directly to Chinese consumers?

    • Sure! just register an account with Taobao and start selling

      • Charlie

        Correct me if I’m wrong but you’ll need your wife to register a Zhifubao account with her 身份证 in order to sell on Taobao. Otherwise it should be no problem though, and could be a very profitable business.

  12. Hi:

    I have started a Forum Post for the whole raising a kid topic, feel free to check it out and ask a question or give an answer or post pics 😉

    http://www.chengduliving.com/forum

  13. FOREIGN MOTHERS DO NOT HAVE THINGS MADE IN OUR COUNTRIES! EVERYTHING IS MADE IN CHINA AND IS AWFUL!

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