When you look at the population figures, it is easy to be seduced by commercial opportunities on the mainland - even for a business as young as e-commerce. But the picture is more complicated than you might think. Consider Shanghai Book City, which manages the financial centre's biggest book complex and is the first mainland bookstore to offer secure electronic transactions. Since launching a site to sell books via the Net last December, orders have been coming in slowly but surely. Its site - bookmail.com.cn - is a far cry from America's biggest on-line bookstore, Amazon.com, in sales and variety, but it is pleased with its average monthly sales of 20,000 yuan (about HK$18,658). Its on-line sales are not profitable - which on-line bookstore is? - but the bookseller expects Internet orders to grow rapidly. 'Orders are up every month and the prospects are good,' an official said. Taking a cue from its book sales, Shanghai Book City launched a new product on the Net last month - computer orders. Not surprisingly, there has not been one sale and there is not likely to be for a while. Why? Because mainland-produced books are cheap - most are under 30 yuan a copy - and the risks of a bad deal are therefore not substantial. A personal computer, on the other hand, costs at least several thousand yuan for a cheap model and more than 10,000 yuan for a solid brand. In other words, a low-end computer is worth about a month's salary of a white-collar worker, and a good one at least three months' pay. Not many mainlanders have the confidence to spend that kind of money on a product without first seeing and touching it. Which is why Shanghai No 1 Department Store - the country's biggest retailer - has been slow to initiate a Web site for its wide variety of goods. After extensive internal discussions, only now is there a consensus to build a site to push its wares. Deputy managing director Liu Fuqun said e-commerce could be big business in the mainland in 10 years' time, but there were many barriers to tear down. 'There is a general resistance among individuals to borrow; the same is for e-commerce,' he said. Although No 1 has established a record of reliability and dependability, this cannot be said for most other retailers, who believe once goods are sold they cannot be returned or changed, even if there are faults. This is physical retailing. On-line, consumers do not see and feel the product, except seeing on the screen. There have been complaints by consumers who tried on-line shopping only to find the goods they received were not the ones advertised on the screen. This could happen anywhere and in physical retailing as well - dishonest retailers selling things they fail to deliver. But the problem is, in the mainland, it happens often enough for consumers not to develop trust in retailers across-the-board. Then there is a lack of e-commerce financial mechanisms, such as a credit rating of sellers or a transaction settlements system, to help on-line buying take off. E-commerce legislation is barely in place at all to protect on-line buyers or sellers, or to help settle disputes. This is not to suggest e-commerce has no future in the mainland. It will take off years down the road. Meanwhile, consumers must keep their eyes open.