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March 19, 2012

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Bikinis, betel nut, books - Who buys most online?

SHANGHAINESE famous for their sweet tooth and taste for mild foods are actually big fans of hot chilies; women in hot western deserts in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region like bikinis; people in coal-rich Shanxi Province have a taste for diamonds and Ningbo people are health-conscious and buy a lot of first-aid kits.

These are among the findings of a fun and intriguing survey released last month by, China's largest online shopping platform; it challenges stereotypes of Chinese from various provinces and opening a window onto who's buying what. But it's short on actual numbers and on comparisons.

In its second such survey, Taobao looked at 120 million visits last year, a 120-percent increase over 2010. There's no official figure from Taobao about its last year's total sales volume; a recent Internet release estimated it reached 100 billion yuan (US$15.8 billion), but many doubted the authenticity.

"From statistics collected from our database, we can find interesting patterns and see how the shopping habits among online buyers in different regions differ from each other," says Sun Yuxing, Taobao's communications officer.

"It's also a weather vane that can help predict trends and help buyers and retailers keep an eye on what's in style," she says. "But above all, the key word for this report is fun."

So it gives some hints but it's not the basis of serious marketing or sociological conclusions.

It's a bit surprising that the most-searched products for Beijing online buyers are cross-stitch embroidery, something not usually associated with people from the north who are not supposed to be too fussy.

Though it's far from beaches and the ocean, the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region buys most of the bikinis. Maybe the people plan on vacations and the shopping malls in Muslim areas don't carry many skimpy swimsuits.

Jilin people in the north China are attracted most to areca nut (also called betel nut,) from a southern palm that's eaten with betel leaves. It's a mild stimulant.

"This report, to some extent, matches people's needs," says Li Naihe, associate professor of marketing at Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Antai College of Economics and Management. His fields is mainly Internet marketing and online consumer behaviors and psychology.

"People can easily get on the Internet what they have a hard time getting offline, which might be one reason explaining the findings," he says.

It's surprising that Shanghai people, known for favoring mild and sweet flavors, would like hot chilies. But "New Shanghainese" Zhong Yan from Sichuan Province says it's not at all surprising, since the city is a melting pot for people from around the country and the world. And Shanghai natives themselves are acquiring a taste for spicy food, she says.

Zhong relocated to Shanghai more than 15 years ago. "Sichuan people don't buy chili online because we can get as many as we want at home. And we don't buy spicy sauces, we make them," she says.

Marketing professor Li says online buyers are mostly price sensitive and the majority are young people.

He's skeptical about the reliability of the statistics and warns people against jumping to conclusions.

"Take 'Shanghai loves chili' as an example," he says. "We don't know who the real consumers are. They can be immigrants to Shanghai or Shanghai locals. We can't judge."

But the report also confirms conventional wisdom.

Young people in Shanghai bought the most digital cameras equipped with self-timers and Shanghai girls splurged the most on makeup and skincare products. The most searched brands among Shanghai shoppers are luxury names such as Prada, Gucci, Burberry and Coach.

Jiangsu people are known to be scholarly and the region produced many famous literati in the past. Jiangsu residents purchased the most books on Taobao last year.

The province's six main cities dominated the national top 10 ranking on book spending.

People there spent a total of 260 million yuan (US$41 million).

Shanxi people may be among the most filial and devoted to the parents (or maybe not, you can't really tell from this information). The report shows that among every 100 Shanxi people under age 30, around seven purchased products for the elderly. That puts them at the top of the filial piety list of Taobao purchasers.

But the coal-rich province with lots of nouveau riche also goes for diamonds. Last year the money they spent on Taobao diamonds accounted for 29.4 percent of the total sales volume of all diamonds on Taobao.

Taiwanese are famous snack lovers and the island's five counties swept the top five places of spending on snack food in 2011.

The champion, Changhua County people spent 2,095 yuan per person last year on treats.

Shanghai is also a big contender in the snack competition. Among every 1,000 shoppers from Shanghai, 105 bought snack food on Taobao, which ranked the top. So comparatively speaking, Taiwanese spend the most money on snacks while Shanghai has the most people who bought snacks.

Yunnan people are so into pet dogs that they bought the most dog food last year, while Shenzhen people are quite environmentally conscious, each Shenzhen person who shopped on Taobao bought 27.85 energy-saving lightbulbs.

Hangzhou people like to dine out, indicated by their purchasing the highest number of restaurant coupons and vouchers on Taobao, around 1.2 percent of all online buyers. They are followed by Shanghai people. Cantonese people, who are said to eat everything with legs (except tables) rank only 12th.

"Most people think Hangzhou is a tourist city, but actually it is also a place for gourmets," says Hangzhou local Zhao Xin. He recalls that 20 years ago he usually brought his friends from other places to the famous ancient restaurants such as Lou Wai Lou or Zhi Wei Guan.

"But today we've got hundreds of options for a good dinner," he says.

Hangzhou's Dadou Road along the Shengli River is for frugal diners, who can enjoy lots of seafood and barbecue there, while night owls love the Zhongshan Road S. night market.

"In Hangzhou, life is not as busy as that in our neighbor Shanghai. We've got time to enjoy a cup of tea by the West Lake in the afternoon," Zhao says. "And food costs less than that in Shanghai. Hangzhou people love dining out."

The Cantonese Shi Jun, however, fights back.

"Guangzhou's catering industry is as prosperous as Hangzhou. The difference is that we love to dine in truly local small restaurants, which often look shabby but taste good. And those restaurants seldom offer online coupons," he says. "The teahouses and eateries are always busy at night and weekends."

As the saying goes, "in fair weather prepare for the foul." It seems that Ningbo people may be among the most prepared. Last year about 0.58 percent of online buyers from Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, purchased first-aid kits on Taobao. That was the highest of any city. Nearby Jinhua City is also a big buyer. Each person buying on Taobo spent 326 yuan on first-aid kids.

However, Yang Xiansheng, a sales director of a Zhejiang-based first-aid kit factory, questions the statistics.

"It is a little exaggerated," he says. "The first-aid kit sales is very limited in China, not to say in Zhejiang." Overseas volume is nine times domestic sales volume.

Other findings

? Among male snack food buyers, men aged 40-49 bought the most.

? Sichuan people bought the most crystal items, 15.3 percent of all sales volume for crystal on Taobao.

? Zhoushan women in Zhejiang Province are described as caring wives and girlfriends. Of all women shoppers online, they bought the most men's products, 901.72 yuan per person.


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