China’s band of daigou shoppers turn to domestic sales after coronavirus halts overseas trips for luxury goods

He Huifeng
·5-min read

An increasing number of young women from across China are joining a movement seeking to take advantage of a growing domestic consumption drive, a key element of the government’s new dual circulation strategy.

The women, known as daigou, are small-time buying agents who would traditionally travel abroad on shopping trips for their customers. The job took off in the last few years in China amid strong demand for foreign goods among wealthy and upper middle-class families.

The women, though, feared they would be hit hard with coronavirus-related travel curbs potentially causing them to lose most of their crucial social media followers.

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But they soon found that when they banded together, they could transform themselves into sellers of high-quality Chinese products.

In August, a group of several dozen daigou in their 20s and 30s flew to a small jade factory near the China-Myanmar border and spent several days helping local suppliers sell over 8 million yuan (US$1.2 million) worth of jade jewellery.

At first we thought the daigou group was finished because we couldn’t go overseas and shop

Zhang Ting

“At first we thought the daigou group was finished because we couldn’t go overseas and shop. Some sisters have already switched to insurance sales, some went into clerical work,” said Hunan province native Zhang Ting, the leader of the group that calls themselves Halo B.T. women.

“Now we are getting famous. More and more Chinese brands and manufacturers are lining up to invite us to promote their products, from jewellery to diamonds, and even apartments.

“All of us in this group already had strong sales platforms. Each of us has around 5,000 fans on WeChat, all regular customers from wealthy and upper middle-class families across the country.

“The conversion of social media traffic from [the presentation of] products into sales is very efficient, backed by our credibility selling foreign brands for years.”

China’s inward-facing ‘dual circulation’ strategy leaves many wondering where domestic demand will come from

Sparked by an idea in March as she underwent quarantine at a hotel after coming back from a European buying trip, Zhang Ting started looking into ways to rescue the daigou business and began knocking on the door of domestic markets.

During a single trip in June to the Panyu district in Guangzhou, the gemstone and jewellery trading hub of southern China, Zhang Ting and 150 other daigou sold 30,000 carats of Moissanite artificial diamonds.

“Now we have been contacted by more than 2,000 daigou from all over the country. I can earn a few thousand yuan selling on a week-long trip, which is much better than being unemployed at home, isn’t it?” she said.

“Our core team has about 80 people, each of whom now earns between 30,000 and 50,000 [yuan] (US$4,500 – US$7,600) a month. Before the outbreak, many of them used to go abroad twice a month, like five days in Korea and seven days in Japan, and earned about 10,000 or 15,000 yuan a month.”

Shanghai-based Zhang Yuling is one of the top sellers in the group, and over the past seven years has travelled to nearly 20 countries, having started her daigou career as a way to pay for her travels only for it to quickly become a full-time job.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, she travelled abroad at least twice a month, buying black tea and gemstones in Sri Lanka, milk powder in Australia, health care products in Costco warehouse markets in the United States, and luxury handbags in Europe.

Zhang Yuling has more than 5,000 followers on her WeChat account and lives in the Yangtze River Delta, one of China’s high-income areas.

I used to think that the fans would only be interested in overseas brands, but now I find that no matter if I sell agricultural products, matsutake mushrooms, or jewellery, as long as they think I have good taste

Zhang Yuling

“[My fans] are affluent and middle class women and very enthusiastic about shopping for foreign goods for their high-quality daily life,” she said. “Every time I went abroad, I gave a preview of the trip, and they would make a considerable number of orders.

“I used to think that the fans would only be interested in overseas brands, but now I find that no matter if I sell agricultural products, matsutake mushrooms, or jewellery, as long as they think I have good taste, and the goods I recommend are high-quality, they will continue to place orders for purchases when they are unable to get the products themselves. This is a change that I have seen this year and I hadn’t thought about it before.

“I’m as busy as last year, selling agricultural products in Hunan province in May, selling Moissanite [artificial diamonds] in Guangzhou in June, selling matsutake in Shangri-la in July, jade in Yunnan province and pearls in October in Zhejiang.”

The outbreak has inspired us and made us quickly realise our value. We’re not just someone buying and reselling goods overseas and taking the risk of dodging import taxes

Deng Xinjin

The women do face the problem of remaining creditable and attractive to their middle-class followers without the backing of international major brands and of pictures showing their trips abroad due to coronavirus travel restrictions, but most remain optimistic.

“In fact, the outbreak has inspired us and made us quickly realise our value. We’re not just someone buying and reselling goods overseas and taking the risk of dodging import taxes,” said Deng Xinjin, another daigou.

“We are able to build a network of suppliers who allow us to access goods with exclusive discounts, and also serve as a bridge to access directly rich spending power.”

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