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Chinese sellers go to TikTok school to reach buyers abroad | Business

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Chinese sellers go to TikTok school to reach buyers abroad

GUANGZHOU, April 24, 2024 (BSS/AFP) – Donning hijabs and floor-length abaya

gowns over shorts and tank tops, Chinese students at an e-commerce school

perform into a smartphone camera as they learn how to sell the clothes to

overseas TikTok users.

It is the final day of a two-week course on selling products abroad via the

short video app — which despite being blocked in China is a platform more

and more Chinese vendors are turning to.

Succeeding on TikTok requires tools for bypassing internet restrictions as

well as foreign-language skills, challenges that have prompted a boom in

courses and consulting services.

At the school in Guangzhou in southern Guangdong province, an instructor

holds up the Middle Eastern-inspired garments to the camera and rattles off

prices and sizing information for Muslim buyers in the UK.

“This is chiffon, it’s really breathable!” she gushes in English as her

proteges model the goods and sort through racks of satin robes under stark

studio lights.

“We teach people which products are selling better, and which markets are

more suitable for their current stages,” 27-year-old Wang Yaxuan, another

instructor at the school, tells AFP.

Guangdong is home to thousands of factories making a mindboggling variety of

products, from the abayas to espresso machine parts to wigs made of human


After decades of producing goods for export, Chinese companies are

increasingly seeking to cut out the middleman and market themselves at lower

prices, directly to overseas consumers.

Shein, the China-founded fast fashion giant, has effectively taken over the

lower-end Western market using this strategy, with TikTok a key facet of its

selling network.

TikTok Shop launched in the United States late last year, and e-commerce

features have previously been rolled out in places like Britain and Southeast


A casual scroll on the hugely popular app’s “Live” tab can land users on

multiple shopping livestreams within minutes.

But with TikTok unavailable in China — parent company Bytedance operates the

more strictly censored sister app Douyin domestically — smaller businesses

there are at a disadvantage.

Courses like the one at Mede Education Technology’s e-commerce school help by

covering everything from the basics of creating a TikTok account to handling

shipping and analysing sales data.

Fees start at around 9,000 yuan ($1,244) for a six-day course.

Students, who range from factory owners to fresh graduates, often take

classes for multiple foreign shopping platforms including Amazon and

Southeast Asia’s Shopee.

– Information gap –

Qiu Zhouwen, a course participant in his 30s, works for a Guangzhou cosmetics


He says his company enrolled him because they are hoping to eventually sell

their skincare range through TikTok.

“Information is part of the cost (of doing business) now, and if you don’t

have the information that’s appropriate to the market, your cost will be way

too high,” Qiu says.

Wang, the Mede instructor, attended university in the United States and says

it can be challenging for Chinese sellers to adapt to different consumer

tastes abroad.

Chemical manufacturer Donghua Jinlong spawned viral memes on TikTok this

month after overseas social media users found absurdist humour in the

company’s matter-of-fact videos about industrial-grade glycine featuring AI-

generated voiceovers.

There are also significant technical hurdles.

Accessing TikTok from China requires VPN software to bypass the country’s

virtual “Great Firewall”, while dodging the app’s own curbs on users

manipulating their IP addresses.

VPNs are a legal grey area in China, with authorities occasionally cracking

down while generally tolerating their use for business purposes.

TikTok is also caught up in global geopolitical tensions — the US Congress

is threatening to ban the app entirely over concerns it could share personal

data with the Chinese government.

Wang is unfazed by the prospect of a US TikTok ban.

“Our students are not just selling to the US market… the current trend for

TikTok for Southeast Asia is also very good,” she tells AFP.

Wang says it’s not the first time this situation has happened, adding that

she feels the United States was trying to “take this huge cake and split up

the market”.

– Catchphrases and clicks –

Mede is one of many organisations running TikTok classes, including others

based in Guangdong, where authorities have hung up propaganda banners

promoting international e-commerce.

Those not willing to shell out steep course fees can also seek advice from e-

commerce veterans who have built a following on Chinese social apps by

sharing TikTok tips.

Molly Zhao, a 23-year-old TikTok livestreamer, has been selling products

including clothing and electronics online since 2022.

Zhao, who studied in Italy and speaks Italian and English, told AFP her

foreign-language skills have earned her livestreaming jobs paying as much as

20,000 yuan ($2,760) each month.

She regularly posts videos for domestic viewers on Douyin, covering topics

including common English phrases and how to explain shipping rates clearly.

“You must build up the atmosphere,” she explains in one video, adding that

using a catchphrase can “make a deeper impression on customers”.

In another video, a smiling, dancing Zhao shares her warmup routine before a

livestream session selling gemstones and crystals to US viewers.

“Time to earn Americans’ money,” she says in a deadpan caption. “I’ll put on

some music to hype myself up.”

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