Taobao has taken its online marketplace to an offline fair in Shanghai for the weekend, as parent company Alibaba Group looks to spotlight the young entrepreneurs doing business on China’s largest e-commerce site.
The fair, called the Taobao Maker Festival, brought together 72 of these up-and-coming merchants, who sell everything from bamboo bicycles to foldable guitars to 3D-printed jewelry. Alibaba is putting particular focus on China’s young generation, the company said, because it is the most active group on Taobao.
“Millennials are the driving force behind Taobao Marketplace, with 70 percent of buyers in their 20s and 30s,” Alibaba Chief Marketing Officer Chris Tung said in a statement. These twenty- and thirtysomethings “make a strong contribution to the platform’s active ecosystem,” he said.
That ecosystem includes not just e-commerce but also digital media such as news and live streaming, online communities of like-minded shoppers and services such as travel booking and food delivery. And the majority of this activity is playing out on mobile devices. Mobile Taobao, launched in 2009, currently has 369 million monthly active users and they spend more than 25 minutes a day using the app. The average time spent on Amazon and eBay’s mobile apps are about 9 minutes and 11 minutes, respectively, while users of social media site Twitter spend 16 minutes.
Some of those buyers are becoming sellers as well, leveraging Taobao to launch their businesses, according to Alibaba. In the process they too are helping to shift the site’s reputation as a consumer-to-consumer sales channel to a lifestyle destination for one of China’s most important demographics.
“Mobile Taobao has evolved into an interactive lifestyle platform driven by a vibrant young consumer population who seek to do much more than just shop,” Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang said in the statement. “It is a destination for innovators, entrepreneurs and creatives to showcase and experiment amongst a community of 423 million Chinese consumers on our China retail marketplaces that come to Mobile Taobao to explore, discover and be entertained.”
Beijing-based entrepreneur David Wang, 29, took to Taobao to expand the bamboo bicycle business he started two years ago. Wang chose bamboo because it’s easier to work with than steel, which requires welding skills most people don’t have, he said. He doesn’t sell the bikes, however. Instead, he charges customers to come into his workshop and he helps them build the bikes themselves—for RMB 2,000 ($300) and up. All the parts, from the bamboo to the individual components, are purchased through Taobao, he said, and the site is helping to build brand awareness for his company so that he can take his workshops on the road.
An American-born Chinese—his father is from Hong Kong—Wang said his seven years working as a market researcher in China’s automotive industry led to the idea. Many of the young consumers he interviewed talked about the social pressure to own a high-end car, whether for professional or marital status, so Wang decided he wanted to restore the social value that China previously had associated with the bicycle. He said his product will resonate with consumers who share a similar value system at a time when China’s younger generations are increasingly looking for ways to explore and express their identities.
“Consumption is one way to explore that,” he said. But so is building things, he added. “It’s about exploring something through making it rather than buying it.”
When 37-year-old Rachel Hu’s family was prepping its compact, foldable guitars for the Chinese market, they turned to Taobao as well. Her father-in-law had spent 30 years making guitar parts out of a factory in Wenzhou in China’s eastern Zhejiang Province for global brands such as Fender and Gibson, and designed the new guitar two years ago after retiring and passing the operation to his son. Eventually the production of the molds needed to perfect the guitar overtook the factory’s operations and the family decided to focus on its own product full time.
The new company, ALP, moved to Hangzhou and last year launched a crowdfunding campaign through Taobao to gauge interest in the guitar. The family raised RMB 208,000 (about $31,000) from 70 orders when they’d planned for just RMB 100,000. The company now sells a range of guitars and basses between RMB 3,680 and RMB 8,000, and Hu credits Taobao with helping them find an audience.
“It was hard to sell to regular stores because no one knew our guitar yet,” she said. “So it was good to put our story on Taobao.”
The makers aren’t the only draw for attendees. Alibaba is also using the event to highlight its push into virtual reality. Attendees will be able to test a beta version of the company’s Buy+ online shopping experience, which allows consumers to shop in a 360-degree virtual store. U.S.-based mixed-reality company Magic Leap, which Alibaba invested in earlier this year, is also in Shanghai to give a keynote presentation in the afternoon.