Dàigòu Agents:  Outsourcing taste in search of the ‘real deal’

I’m in Rome to visit my family and make a stop in Via del Corso, the long road that connects l’Altare Della Patria with Piazza Del Popolo, the heart of Rome and high end fashion. I’m not here to shop, but to catch a glimpse of Dàigòu – the latest shopping trends among Chinese spenders…worth $6 Billion dollars a year.

Rome is one of the popular European destinations for Chinese travellers seeking a lush, glamourous shopping experience. Through friends in Shanghai, I had befriended a young man who looks like a shopper, but is, in fact, a Dàigòu. Zhang is a full-time Dàigòu agent (pronounced DIE-goo), who shares a glimpse of the latest shopping trends among Chinese spenders. A dàigòu buys goods on behalf of those at home…but more than a mere transaction, the dàigòu experience is re-shaping what authenticity and trust in brands really means.

What is a Dàigòu Agent?

I meet Zhang at the Ferragamo store, he’s busy taking photos of a pair of women shoes with décolleté and signature Ferragamo bow selling for €498. He then posts the photos on WeChat, a messaging and social media app, with the caption ‘New collection now available’.

 

Zhang is a full-time “Dàigòu” agent, which translates as “buying on behalf of” and describes the process of using overseas Chinese as agents to shop abroad. Customers and dàigòus use WeChat to arrange for the shopping process. Dàigòus usually post photos and prices on WeChat, interested customers will message to negotiate a dàigòu fee and wire a deposit through AliPay or WeChat. Lastly, dàigòus will make the purchase and either mail it or deliver it personally.

Authenticity and brand values used to be communicated through lush flagships and sumptuous materials. Now they appear as a post between acquaintances. While this emerging practice is much talked about in fashion and retail circles, it begs the question: How does the outsourcing of good taste to a dàigòu impact the importance of authenticity and trust in the shopping experience?

Illegal Dàigòu Agents as a Trusted Resource?

Dàigòu shopping has long intrigued me. During my three years in Shanghai, I saw people use dàigòus to buy anything from luxury brands to vitamin supplements, milk powder and toothpaste. Each shopper had a slightly different motivations, but cost and food safety concerns were always mentioned, almost automatically. China’s famous baby milk incident in 2008 and subsequent food and household product scandals have made Chinese consumers extremely weary of anything made in the mainland.

Yet, I could not understand how a toothpaste or baby milk that arrived in a stranger’s suitcase, stripped of its original packaging could feel more trustworthy than shopping in an official store. Surely a store on the high street would be more regularly screened and checked than a the suitcase of a dàigòu who is operating illegally? What stops a dàigòu from simply making fake products locally without the hassle and risk of airport security?

If safety is not the key concern, perhaps price is driving trust in dàigòus. Legitimate products bought abroad are often cheaper. I, myself, was recently asked by a friend in China to help her buy a pair of Clarks shoes in London, they were priced at £65 in London and 1000 RMB (£117) at the Cloud Nine Mall in Shanghai, roughly double the price and perhaps ‘less real’ in her mind.

When I gave my friend the pair of shoes, it was in a used plastic bag from my kitchen and stripped of any proof of authenticity, quite the opposite of the sparkle and glamour of Shanghainese malls. Similarly, when Zhang delivers the Ferragamo shoes to his clients, packaging is removed to save luggage space and not attract attention at border controls.

But Zhang’s clients are not only buying one pair of shoes, they are spending thousands of Euros and Dollars on single orders – allowing Zhang to send his two kids to private school in Rome. Cost can’t be the main factor for buying abroad when consumers have the disposable income a few times the average salary in Shanghai.

What is really driving the use of dàigòu?

Re-thinking the Meaning of Authenticity through the Eyes of a Dàigòu Shopper

When I delivered the Clarks shoes to my friend, our relationship meant that she trusted me, and that she trusted these shoes had come directly from Oxford Street in London. Zhang builds a very similar relationship of trust and friendship with his clients. His WeChat posts are not only about the latest collections and fashion tips, but also about his personal life, playing with his children to family trips and travel photos. He shares his day to day reality, and more importantly, values and aspirations that his customers seek. Not only he builds trust by doing so, but adds richness to his persona, making him a near aspirational figure to his customers.

What my friend and Zhang’s customers experience when they receive luxury products out of a suitcase, is the knowledge they have come from somewhere closer to their origin, handpicked by someone that lives the reality of that birthplace and thus making the purchase far more precious and authentic than going into a shopping mall in Shanghai.

Through this lens, buying Clarks shoes from Oxford Street makes sense. Sending a Dàigòu to buy Italian brands from the heart of Rome begins to make sense as well. Receiving ‘authentic’ products stripped of their packaging, ferried thousands of miles in a suitcase becomes part of the shopping experience by making it more real, authentic and bona fide.

When we look at it from this perspective, dàigòu moves from illicit transaction to an on-going relationship with a friend. It gains a friendly and familiar authenticity more akin to a friend bringing you back a bottle of whisky from Scotland or an aged cheese from a weekend away in France. Zhang also takes the role of personal curator, another reason why customers prefer buying from him than from stores. He spends a great deal of time on Weibo learning about celebrities and latest movies, the popular microblogging website – “I know everything about Angela Baby”, he says as he shows me a photo of the actress that he posted. His knowledge of celebrities’ choice of style and brand is learnt bottom up, unlike store assistants who have been trained by brand owners.

In fact, this friendly, familiar practice has become so popular, that now semi-legal dàigòu websites like OnlyLady and Mihaibao represent a small part a massive new wave in consumer behaviour. In 2015, Dàigòu sales were estimated to be worth nearly $6 Billion US dollars.

 

Learning from Dàigòus

Although both brands and governments have implemented measures to curb dàigòu trade, such as limiting the number of products a person can purchase, stricter border controls and high taxes (paywall) on luxury goods brought home by travellers, there are many Chinese consumers who prefer shopping through dàigòus like Zhang, whose experience offers lessons on how to communicate with end-consumers living abroad.

Dàigòus have a strong influence over consumption behaviours and brand choice that is often overlooked by the world’s biggest brands. Zhang feels he is not valued enough, telling me “Burberry doesn’t allow me to take photos or buy more than one product at a time even though I’ve helped them make profit!”. Although this attitude toward dàigòus is changing – fast. From the brand’s perspective, however, there is concern of what a dàigòu culture means for brand loyalty and implications on how they continue building relationship with the end-consumer.

// Yuebai Liu