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Local Economy

To Earn a Living, Some Chinese Students Work as Global Shoppers

Mark Liu and others work a side business buying luxury goods for customers back home.

Si Chen 20 Apr 2016The Thunderbird

Si Chen is a student at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism. This story first appeared on

When Mark Liu fights his way through the crowds during retail's big sale days like Black Friday, he's not looking to score a status symbol Fendi wallet or Tom Ford sunglasses.

Liu, a first-year graduate student at UBC Sauder School of Business, is a daigou, a person who buys products in Canada and sends them to mainland China.

The profits -- about 10 to 15 per cent of the cost of the goods -- help pay for Liu's studies. "I want to reduce my parents' burdens, so I have to earn as much money as I can. Black Friday is a great opportunity for me."

It's a long way from the media stereotype of rich young Chinese racing around Vancouver in Lamborghinis, idly spending their parents' millions.

Liu, 22, is originally from Wuhan, China. He buys Canadian health-care products and any other items that his customers request. As recent Black Friday sales coincided with the end of the semester, Liu had a lot of pressure from both his business and school.

"The orders have doubled during Black Friday weekend," he said, "I think I could earn enough money for travelling during Christmas vacation. But first, I have to get prepared for the finals."

Liu's customers have a wide range of shopping needs.

"I have got orders for all sorts of products, from milk powder to Canada Goose outerwear, Herschel backpacks and special local products like ice wine and maple syrup," he said. "Each time, I would charge 10 to 15 per cent of the item's price as my reward. Customers would pay through Alipay."

Alipay, which is similar to PayPal, is the biggest online payment platform in China.

With the help of Chinese social-media platforms, like WeChat and Weibo where Liu posted pictures of the items on sale, he extended his sales circle from friends and relatives to strangers. Liu has been using social media to promote his business for six months.

"People contact me after they see my posts and tell me what they want." Most of his items are bought directly from retail shops in Vancouver. For health-care products, he gets them from Costco due to the lower prices.

"The cheaper price is the main reason why people come to me. Even factoring in delivery, there is still a price advantage," said Liu. "Especially on Black Friday, almost every retailer is offering deals. Some Chinese people want to be part of it, so they find me and I could make more money."

Thanks to Black Friday, Liu's monthly profits rang up to about $1,500, which normally would be $600.

"Another important factor is Chinese people believe the products here have better quality," he said. "That's why many mainlanders want me to buy for them."

Counterfeits are common in China. Those items that are found online of cheaper price and in abundant supply are usually fake.

Other students in the biz

Liu is not alone. He is only one of the growing daigou population among Chinese students at UBC.

Emma Feng, who is studying law at UBC, joined the group two years ago. Unlike Liu, who does his business independently, Feng works with an online merchant of Global Taobao -- a subdivision of the biggest online shopping website in China.

At first, Feng only promised to buy on behalf of her parents, close relatives and friends. Gradually, as the demand for overseas purchasing grew, she decided to have a try working with Chinese business operators.

For Feng, Black Friday did not mean increasing sales.

"Generally speaking, the merchant co-operates with many students who study abroad in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. We have to send him the local discount information every week, then he would compare and choose items with the lowest prices," she said.

"The merchant has many options to choose from and retailers in the United States offer a greater discount on Black Friday," Feng said. "So it doesn't make any difference to me."

Feng gets paid 10 per cent of the item's price for each purchase. "The merchant would transfer the money directly to my bank account."

Instead of sending the products to China by express shipping, she pays her friends or other Chinese students who are planning to fly back to China to take these items within their suitcases.

"I just paid a friend twice the usual price to carry a Michael Kors bag back to China on Sunday," Feng said. "That's a common phenomenon during Black Friday weekend."

Different from people like Liu who are under great pressure to strike a balance between his business and study, Feng is quite enjoying the business.

"I regard my daigou life as an adventure of seeking joy and learning," said Feng. "Money is not the main reason. I enjoy the whole process of being a daigou."  [Tyee]

Read more: Local Economy, Education

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