Online sellers stage charges protest
Bien Perez and Sophie Yu
A group of disgruntled mainland online merchants aim to bring their plight to Hong Kong's attention with a series of protests against Taobao Mall and Taobao Marketplace, the retail e-commerce divisions of the privately held Alibaba Group.
Around 20 protesters handed a petition yesterday to the Liaison Office of the Central People's Government in Sai Wan, so that their complaints could be passed on to Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.
A demonstration will be staged today at Times Square in Causeway Bay, where the Hangzhou-based Alibaba Group's local offices are located, and at the Golden Bauhinia Square in Wan Chai tomorrow.
The demonstrations come after angry protests that erupted on the mainland in October whenTaobao Mall, the country's leading business-to-consumer e-commerce platform, with more than 50,000 registered online sellers, raised its annual membership fees and charged hefty merchant security deposits in an attempt to discourage vendors of counterfeit goods and boost online customer service. Thousands of small business owners claimed they were put at a disadvantage on the online shopping site compared with large merchants.
Complaints were also raised against the customer ratings system implemented by Taobao Mall and Taobao Marketplace, the mainland's largest consumer-to-consumer e-commerce platform.
A protester who identified herself as 'Sheng' said yesterday: 'We've come to Hong Kong because there is no interest in us on the mainland. We want dialogue. We want to negotiate with Taobao on an equal basis, but nobody will listen to us.' She alleged that police in Hangzhou detained protesters and barred buses carrying online merchants from other provinces from the city.
However, the Ministry of Commerce intervened in the dispute in October and asked Taobao management to take heed of the complaints. In response, Taobao Mall announced on October 17 that the increase in fees and merchant security deposits would be delayed for nine months. Most of the merchants on Taobao Mall will not have to pay the higher rate until October 1 next year. That transition period, however, will not apply to online merchants who rank in the bottom 10 per cent of customer satisfaction rankings.
Alibaba spokesman John Spelich said: 'These so-called protesters don't actually want to discuss their business - they have made it clear that they want nothing less than for us to abolish the customer rating system. We will never do that because it is an important tool for buyers.
'We are happy to offer advice and counsel [to merchants] on how to improve ratings through better service and product quality, which is where we suggest people focus their efforts rather than engaging in disingenuous protests.'
Up to 5,000 small merchants are expected to leave Taobao Mall over the higher fees. Those vendors are being encouraged to switch over to Taobao Marketplace, which is a free platform for small transactions and group buying activities.
In a review of intellectual property disputes worldwide published in March, the Office of the United States Trade Representative recognised Taobao for 'making significant efforts to address the availability of [copyright] infringing goods through its website'.
Francis Gouten, chairman of the luxury goods vendor Hui She Shang on Taobao Mall, said: 'The trade in counterfeit goods must be sharply curtailed. We believe Taobao is taking solid steps in the right direction.'