I recently purchased a Sanyo camcorder, and turned to eBay in search of the corresponding battery and charger. I was stunned to find out that it was free to send the charger 8,000 miles from China to the U.S., but cost $4.99 to send it 500 miles to Taiwan, where I was located at the time.
So I flew myself to China instead.
I figured I could meet the eBay retailer, pick up the part in person, and get a glimpse into the operations of an online tech seller in the immense city of Shenzhen, home to many of the world’s largest electronics manufacturers and suppliers. More than just a name on a package, the city is home to 10 million people — and as part of the Hong Kong / Guangzhou megaregion, it’s the largest manufacturing base on the planet. I met one person out of those teeming millions. Here’s his story.
Shenzhen itself was humid when I arrived, the streets full of the sorts of puddles that accumulate owing to the city’s unrelenting rains and insufficient drainage. After a 90-minute trek from the city center, I arrived at an address on the outskirts of town: the location of the seller, eazypower. Inside the tall commercial building, I was bewildered when getting off the elevator – the offices within view were vacant and no one was around. Upon further exploration, I saw that half of the offices sat empty and the others were occupied by small electronics companies. With the help of a courteous stranger, I found eazypower’s location and was greeted at the two-room office by the company’s 34-year-old founder, Huan Zhao Quan.
The offices within view were vacant and no one was around.
The front room of the office had a pod of four computer work stations and shelves stocked with boxed goods. The back room had a few chairs, a large desk, and a couch. More boxed goods sat on end tables. Hanging on the wall were three framed posters with Chinese characters that read “Believe in yourself, believe in partners,” “Never retreat, we are the best team,” and “You can’t search for a smile on Baidu.”
Originally from Hunan province, Huan has lived in Shenzhen and worked in the electronics parts industry for more than a decade. This year, he started his own business.
“My former job was related to this industry,” he told me in Mandarin Chinese. “I resigned from my former position to do this myself because I felt the income would be good.”
I was Huan’s first face-to face customer, as he usually distributes his goods over eBay and Amazon. On each site, his company has multiple accounts, which are differentiated by product category. Daily, they sell approximately 100 items, mostly battery chargers, power cords, walkie-talkies, and separators.
Supporting Huan are three employees; one handles Amazon transactions, one focuses on eBay, and the third manages the shipping and handling. Although their ability to speak English is limited, they all read and write it, which is particularly well-suited for an online business. This is one of their competitive advantages. According to Huan, although English capabilities in China continue to spread, many suppliers still lack this capability.
Most Chinese suppliers sell goods on Taobao, China’s e-commerce giant; Huan and his team do not. He acknowledged Taobao’s potential owing to China’s massive population, but said, “Compared to prices on Amazon and eBay, Taobao’s are much lower. The profit is relatively small…it’s not really worth it.”
Likewise, many sellers on Taobao do not distribute on international websites. “Selling on Taobao does not necessarily mean one sells on eBay, and selling on eBay does not mean one sells on Taobao,” he told Digital Trends. “These are not the same…eBay and Amazon, their requirements are higher than Taobao. Not everyone can do it,” he said
Everything was negotiable.
Huan also pointed out differences between eBay and Amazon. “From a seller’s standpoint, I think eBay protects buyers too much.” He expounded on the number of fraudulent buyers on eBay and said, “Many things are the buyer’s fault, but eBay does not manage this. It is the seller’s responsibility. However, Amazon is relatively better on this front. Amazon has specialists who handle these issues.”
He also acknowledged suppliers’ shortcomings and said, “Every business has mishaps…Because even if you do it really well, you can’t avoid mistakes.” To remedy these situations, Huan recommended buyers first contact the seller before leaving negative feedback. “Most situations have resolutions,” he said.
He noted, however, the inverse relationship between a company’s size and its ability to provide exceptional customer service. As eazypower expanded, the company’s feedback rating dipped to 99.4 percent. “That’s not very high,” he said. “Before, when I managed everything myself, the lowest was 99.7 percent.”
Huan sells his goods to the U.S., U.K., and Australia and sees differences across buyers. Owing to their directness when communicating, “Americans, I think, are little a little easier [to deal with]. British people are a little more difficult,” he said.
The geographic location of his customer base also explained the shipping fee differential. Sending chargers to the U.S., although 16 times further than Taiwan, can be done in bulk, reducing the shipping expenses. “The U.S. is our specialized channel,” he said.
Because Huan does not have a factory, he diversifies his risk by sourcing parts from five to eight local suppliers who he has established relationships with over the years. He also explained that, owing to their specialization, “Not many people manufacture these goods.”
Finding the source: Huaqiang North Road
After collecting my charger, and still in need of the camcorder battery, Huan gave me a lift to Huaqiang North Road in his 2015 Audi A4. En route to the market he noted how manufacturing in Shenzhen has evolved over his decade plus in the city. “More and more, the products are becoming higher quality,” he said.
His suppliers are all located on Huaqiang North Road in Shenzhen, which he said is “Asia’s largest electronics market.” Located in a central area of the city, the bustling commercial thoroughfare is a hodgepodge of buildings filled with electronics stands where small businesses repair and sell assorted electronics from parts to finished goods.
After battling heavy vehicle and pedestrian traffic, we arrived near the market. Delivery trucks were parked on the sidewalks, waiting to be loaded with goods to be shipped within China and elsewhere. Trolleys and mopeds carrying brown boxes strapped down with bungee cords came and went.
Small food stalls with rice and noodles and mom-and-pop convenience stores with beverages efficiently provided laborers with cheap nourishment to keep them sustained. Business cards advertising residences and various services were illegally thrown on the ground, only to be swept up shortly thereafter by the city cleaning crew dressed in blue garb. The perpetual banging of construction and buzzing of a remote-controlled airplane polluted the environment.
“If it’s not in Shenzhen, it’s not anywhere.”
After passing through the plastic tarps serving as doors for the Huaqiang North Road electronics market, entrants were welcomed by a cacophony of ongoing negotiations, recreational drones, and electronic musical instruments. Inside, plastic chairs provided brief spots for reprieve and more boxes, some filled with goods and others about to be, sat waiting. I slowly made my way around the first floor, unsure where to start and distracted by electronics I could never use.
Independent operators managed 5’x8′ stalls with glass cases and table tops stuffed with goods, forming an overwhelming maze of consumption. The six floors were overflowing with any product one could ever need or want, authentic or not: cameras, converters, mobile phones, tablets, computers, components, LED lights, 3D printers, virtual reality glasses, gaming gear, recreational drones. Specialist wholesalers offered different types of the same product; flashlight sellers had dozens of styles and colors and keyboard sellers had differing sizes and brands. Worthless mobile phones and laptops could be rejuvenated for a pittance. And iPhone 4Ss could once again hold value by quadrupling the available storage for USD $27.
There were no prices, though. Everything was negotiable. And sellers were always looking for the buyer to make the first move, to volunteer an opening price, which would be initially scoffed at no matter how reasonable.
After showing the faulty battery to various camera parts sellers, I thought it was a hopeless pursuit – no one was familiar with the Japanese brand Sanyo. But I quickly learned that even if a specific part were unavailable, someone at the market had a contact who could deliver it promptly.
At the Shengying Broadcasting Film and Television Equipment camera shop, I showed the sales representative the battery. After taking a picture of it and sending a couple of WeChat messages to industry partners, he had it. Within 25 minutes, he sourced and sold me the battery for $6.50 — cheaper than eBay.
“If it’s not in Shenzhen,” he said, “it’s not anywhere.”