Online Shopping in the MTR

The Internet meets the MTR: trying on a jacket bought online.
Photos by Oliver Tsang for the South China Morning Post

Nobody seemed alarmed by the sight of two 17-year-old boys playing with guns in the Hong Kong MTR. It was early Wednesday evening at Prince Edward Station and Kelvin Cheung was inspecting a pistol he had arranged to buy from Simon Lee.

“It’s for war games,” Cheung explained as he pulled the trigger on an empty semi-automatic air-powered handgun. He has been playing war games for six months, he said, and he found Lee on Uwants, an online marketplace. After confirming the sale online, they arranged to meet at Prince Edward to finish the transaction. Cheung paid HK$300 for the gun, which he said would have cost HK$570 in a retail store.

“This is my first time buying from Simon, but I actually have two other purchases I’m going to pick up in the station tonight,” said Cheung.

As the rush hour crowds thickened, about fifty other people milled around the edges of the station’s fare-paid zone, most of them waiting to pick up goods they had ordered online. Cash changed hands; so did makeup kits, concert tickets, cameras and bags full of clothing.

In most parts of the world, online shopping is a straightforward process: find what you want, enter your credit card information and have it shipped to your home. Not so in Hong Kong, where analysts describe the online retail market as “underdeveloped” and consumers have long been sceptical of buying things online.

Here, consumers treat the Internet like a giant catalogue, scouring the web for bargains before venturing out into the real world to actually buy the goods. Vendors advertise products on sites like Uwants and Yahoo! Auctions, which function like online bazaars, where shoppers can browse for products, compare prices and, in many cases, negotiate with vendors.

“People enjoy the social interaction of shopping,” said Baniel Cheung Tin-sau, a marketing consultant and lecturer at the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Business and Economics. “It’s a chance to spend time with friends, which is why many people like to buy things offline.”

Those habits follow Hong Kong shoppers online. “If you buy something here, there’s usually no refund, and since Hong Kong is small, you don’t need to travel much to reach your destination,” said Cheung. So rather than risk receiving a dud in the mail, shoppers would rather walk to the nearest MTR station to pick up their purchase.

At the busiest time for exchanges, which is usually in the early evening after people get off work, some MTR stations take on the appearance of miniature marketplaces, with customers trying on clothes, chatting about camera lenses and sharing shopping tips.

“I like to be able to see what I’m buying before I pay for it — and I also like to talk about it,” said Amanda Chan, 39, who was spotted at Prince Edward MTR buying a makeup kit. She spent nearly 20 minutes chatting with the vendor about different kinds of makeup and application techniques. “She brought me a bunch of different products to sample,” said Chan.

The diversity of products available online is what appeals to Tam Yik-yan, 26, who started shopping on Yahoo! Auctions last year and has bought a guitar, vintage camera and clothes through the site.

“There aren’t a lot of well priced second-hand stores in Hong Kong, at least not in a cluster where I can just browse at different places to find pre-loved treasures,” she said. “And I can shop while I’m at work.”

Online shopping has another big draw: it’s cheap. Penne Chong, 27, works as a salesclerk at a Cheung Sha Wan jewellery store and sells some of her shop’s necklaces on Yahoo! Auctions. Because she is able to buy the products with an employee discount, her customers end up paying less than half the retail price.

Though Chong would prefer saving time by shipping the goods to her customers, most request to collect them in person. “People are afraid to buy things online — they think the vendor might take the money without sending the product,” she said. “I’ll go meet them as long as I don’t have to leave the MTR station, so I don’t have to pay much for transport.”

Thanks to that kind of flexibility, online niche markets doing well in Hong Kong even as conventional online retailing struggles to gain a foothold. “People in the rest of the world now download software from the Internet, but people in Hong Kong still go to shops to buy it on CDs, in boxes,” said Baniel Cheung.

But sites that blend online and offline shopping are thriving. In 2007, Yahoo! Auctions was doing so poorly in most parts of the world that it shut all of its sites down, except those in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. The volume of transactions on Yahoo! Auction’s Hong Kong site has since grown by 20 percent per year. Over 800,000 items are available for purchase on the site, and the total value of its transactions reached HK$78 million in October. It earns money through advertising and by charging vendors between HK$1 and $4 to post their item online.

Yahoo! Auctions encourages first-time shoppers to meet vendors in person, said Jeff Yeung, the company’s director of product management. “Meeting face-to-face for item delivery allows the buyer to inspect the quality of the item before accepting it, lower mailing costs and avoid the risk of misdelivery,” he said.

That doesn’t sit well with the MTR, which recently put notices in some stations warning passengers that it is forbidden to “carry out any type of business activity or trade” in the station or to “pass, push or throw any matter or thing between the paid and the unpaid areas.”

The problem is most severe at Lo Wu, Sheung Shui and Fanling stations on the East Rail Line, where the exchange of goods has been “adversely affecting passenger flow,” according to MTR spokesman Jason Chan Lap-yan.

But a crackdown at urban stations, where most online shopping exchanges occur, doesn’t seem to be on the books. At Prince Edward, despite the rush hour crowds, MTR employees and police officers alike turned a blind eye to the cash and goods changing hands.

This story was originally published in the South China Morning Post on December 5, 2010.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Monday December 06 2010at 02:12 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Interior Space, Public Space, Society and Culture, Transportation and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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