Chinese personal shoppers claim ‘biased’ media reports have exposed them to abuse

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Verbally abused and threatened in stores, Chinese personal shoppers — known as daigou — are feeling the brunt of what they claim are “biased” media reports and negative public perception.

Key points:

  • Daigou say they help Australian businesses promote their products in China
  • The lucrative industry has boomed with the growing Chinese middle class
  • Stronger Australian Government regulations on daigou could address some concerns

Wenbo Zhao, 28, a full-time daigou in South Australia, is one of what is believed to be about 400,000 personal shoppers buying and sending a range of Australian products to consumers in China.

Ms Zhao, who is an Australian permanent resident, said that recent reports about daigou clearing pharmacy shelves of baby formula and other products have exposed them to abuse from other customers.

“One day I went to buy a supplement for my clients in a pharmacy where an old lady kept taking photos of me and saying she was going to report me to the newspaper,” Ms Zhao said.

“Some people also say ‘disgusting’ when they walk by [me] in a pharmacy.”

She believed the abuse was triggered by “biased coverage in the Australian media”.

“I don’t blame the Australian people because they don’t know much about Chinese daigou … that’s why there is a misunderstanding.”

Melbourne daigou and mother of two Li Zou said she also had concerns about being verbally abused in pharmacies.

“With media guiding the public opinion, local shoppers would think that all Asian customers shopping for baby formula were going to earn a fat profit,” Ms Zou said.

But not all daigou have had the same experience. Liya Xiang, who is also from Melbourne, said she had never been attacked or abused by any other shoppers while she was buying products for her clients.

800 kilos of cherries sold in just five hours

Ms Zhao said she sold upwards of $5 million worth of Australian products to clients in China each year, adding that daigou often benefited Australian businesses by helping to promote their products in a complex but lucrative Chinese market.

Recently, Ms Zhao sold 800 kilograms of cherries for a South Australian farm for $70 per two-kilo box.

But after paying the farmers, customs clearance, postage and quality assurance, she would earn $10 per box.

To sell the fruits, Ms Zhao and another daigou livestreamed themselves eating cherries to 7,000 potential customers in China on Taobao, China’s biggest e-commerce website and subsidiary of digital giant Alibaba.

During the five-hour livestream, the pair described the flavour and texture of the cherries they ate and gave a brief tour of the farm.

“We try to [explain] why the Chinese customers should buy the Australian cherries instead of Chilean ones, and tell them why Australian cherries are the best quality,” Ms Zhao said.

Ms Zhao added that in some instances, Australian businesses have also seized the opportunity that daigou provided to break into the Chinese market.

She said sometimes pharmacy staff would promote certain items to daigou via popular social media platform WeChat to meet their sales targets.

Gary Mortimer, a retail expert and associate professor of the Queensland University of Technology’s Business School, said that Chinese consumers were very sceptical of what they saw on the shelves in China.

“It is very challenging for Australian companies to enter the Chinese market directly, simply because of the trust issues and the prevalence of counterfeiting,” Dr Mortimer said.

“There is a growing middle class in China, and these types of products are seen as aspirational produce.

“To have Blackmores or Swisse vitamins in your kitchen or your bathroom is a show to say ‘look, I can afford these types of products’.”

He said there was also an understanding among Chinese consumers that Australian products undergo strict testing and regulations to ensure a high quality.

‘I would be very angry as well’

Daigou are not a new phenomenon. Chinese tourists and students started sending baby formula back to their families in the wake of the 2008 Chinese milk scandal, when melamine-laced formula killed six infants and made 300,000 sick.

High demand for baby formula prompted most Australian pharmacy stores and supermarkets to impose restrictions of two cans per person per day.

But many daigou have been seen breaking those rules, stripping shelves of cans of premium formula brands like a2, or visiting stores multiple times in a day in order to fill their orders.

In December, an ABC investigation uncovered a sophisticated network of Daigou operating in Adelaide to source baby formula as soon as it hit the shelves, making it near impossible for some parents to buy the in-demand product for their children.

Even pharmaceutical supplier Adam Trevorrow said at the time that he often struggled to source formula for his child when there was none available in the supermarket.

Last week, video also emerged online showing people being knocked to the ground in a scramble to grab cans of baby formula in a Woolworths supermarket in Box Hill, Victoria.

But Ms Xiang believed this type of behaviour was uncommon among daigou.

“If I was a local mother who can’t find baby formulas for my kids, I would be very angry as well,” she added.

Ms Zou said stronger Australian Government regulations on daigou — by ensuring they paid sufficient taxes — could help to address public concerns about the industry.

“Some daigou have made relatively little contribution to Australia’s tax [system and] they don’t pay taxes in either China or Australia,” she said, adding that China’s recently introduced e-commerce laws could set an example for Australian regulators.

The new laws that went into effect on January 1 include a section targeting daigou, who have to register as ‘e-commerce operators’ and acquire licences in their country and China.

However last month, China’s Premier Li Keqiang announced that the specific policy governing daigou will be delayed indefinitely but did not elaborate on the reason.

By Jack Kilbride and Bang Xiao
ABC

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