Taobao Tips and Tricks #2: Real or Reproduced?

by Evelyn S., Concordia Applied Journalism

Watches at a fake market in Shanghai (Image source:   That’s Shanghai  )

Watches at a fake market in Shanghai (Image source: That’s Shanghai)


Living in Shanghai, we’ve all encountered China’s massive market of fake products in some way.

Some of us purchase counterfeit products on purpose. “I buy… fake uniform pants,” says a high school student who chose to remain anonymous.

Others acquired their knockoffs by accident. Tommy S., a high school junior, says, “I bought fake products quite a couple of times without knowing that they were fake, since the website said they were real.” Tommy’s concern may sound familiar to those who shop online on platforms such as Taobao. When we purchase something online today, it’s often hard to tell whether it’s fake or real.

Senior Caiti W. bought her replicated Vans shoes from the fake market.  (image: Evelyn S., Concordia Applied Journalism)

Senior Caiti W. bought her replicated Vans shoes from the fake market. (image: Evelyn S., Concordia Applied Journalism)

At the start of 2017, Alibaba - Taobao’s parent company - ramped up an anti-piracy campaign, cracking down on counterfeit goods. Since then, to avoid getting shut down, Taobao sellers have become so good at making knockoffs that it’s virtually impossible to tell them apart from real products. There is even a term for high-quality knockoff products: “高仿” (gaofang), literally meaning “high copies”.

Gaofang products muddy the waters for us shoppers. “Some fake products really look so real that people with less experience, or most people, can’t see the difference at all,” says high school secretary Irrey Zhang, who buys essential items on Taobao.

But there are still ways to discern whether a branded product is real or reproduced:


  1. Taobao vs Tmall

Taobao and its higher-end counterpart, Tmall, are slightly different. Taobao is a consumer-to-consumer platform, while Tmall is a business-to-consumer platform.

Taobao sellers are individuals and businesses with Chinese bank accounts who are approved by Taobao. Most sellers buy goods from wholesalers or factories, which means there’s no guarantee for items to be real. Tmall consists of registered businesses with a minimum 3-year business presence in China. Tmall includes more paperwork and “officiality” than Taobao, so its products are considered genuine.

One way to consider this might be this: If Taobao is a street market, then Tmall is a shopping mall. If you are choosing between a Tmall seller and a Taobao seller of the same product, the Tmall product is far more likely to be genuine.

taobao item.png
tmall item.png

The product on the left is from the brand’s flagship store on Tmall, while the product on the right is from a Taobao seller. Notice the difference in price!


2. Check a seller’s rating.

seller chart.jpg

Rating points work like this: Positive review = +1 for seller, neutral = 0 for seller, negative = -1 for seller. Only Taobao sellers get ratings, not Tmall sellers.

This is not a foolproof method. Highly-rated sellers may make a lot of sales each month, generating thousands of automatic positive reviews. However, this doesn’t guarantee that their products are genuine. Seller reviews are a good gauge for how established a seller is, though.


When browsing an item on your computer, its seller’s rating can be found here:

seller rating screenshot.png

3. The seller’s other items

Senior Angela W. bought a knockoff Casio watch from Taobao.  (image: Evelyn S., Concordia Applied Journalism)

Senior Angela W. bought a knockoff Casio watch from Taobao. (image: Evelyn S., Concordia Applied Journalism)

You can also check the seller’s other items to get a feeling of how credible the store is. If other items seem “sketchy”, then the item you want might be fake as well.

4. Amount of sales

You can note an item’s amount of sales, especially if it has less compared to the same product from other sellers. Other Taobao shoppers may be avoiding purchasing that item because they find it suspicious, too.

Amount of sales is also not a hard indicator of genuineness - just a factor. Items that have more sales are also often fake: people buy them because they are comparatively cheaper.


5. Price

Price is a good indicator of whether an item is fake or real, especially if the item is sold on both Tmall and Taobao. As mentioned before, items on Tmall are usually genuine and thus more expensive. Taobao’s products are usually cheaper (so more people will buy them), which makes them more likely to be fake.

Sometimes, items cheaper than the “flagship” price can also be genuine, such as if they were bought in another country with lower prices. Conversely, items at retail price can be fake, too. “I was buying shoes for retail price, and once they arrived, it was easily noticeable that they was fake,” says Tommy. The price of a product a is case-by-case situation, as are most of the other tips in this article.

expensive price.png
cheaper price.png

The product on the left, from the brand’s flagship store on Tmall, is more expensive. The product on the right is from a Taobao seller, and cheaper.

6. Images

Usually, an item is more likely to be real if the seller takes their own photos of it. Items whose photos were “stolen” off the internet are usually fake.

The product on the left’s photo is clearly taken from the internet, while the one on the right is more likely to be the seller’s own photo.

This is because internet photos and the seller’s actual product can be quite different. Even though the seller’s own photos may seem “unprofessional”, they are a more accurate representation of what product you’re going to get.


7. Buyer reviews are dubious

Buyer reviews are actually not the best indicator of genuineness, as many reviews are fake. Once, after giving a bad review, I was contacted by the seller to change it to a good one for 5 RMB. This actually happens often, so don’t absolutely believe that buyer reviews are authentic.

Yes, Taobao is a massive treasure trove of steals and deals -  if you know how to discern the line between fake and real. But if you’re looking for genuine goods, shop with caution!


Evelyn S. is a careful consumer who loves to chat about Taobao with other savvy shoppers. She is also the writer/illustrator behind Chasing Little Lights.

Brian Lavender