Mitigating Mistrust in Chinese eCommerce: Visual Indicators of Trustworthiness on B2C Platforms

Hoo! You remember back in 2005 when this was true? “The research findings show that consumer privacy protection, security control measurements, brand and size of the companies are most important factors, while consumer’s characteristics and perceived easiness of using the Web site that have no significant influences on consumer trust.” (The influenced factors to online consumer trust: an empirical research on B2C e-commerce in China – Bingjia Shao ; Coll. of Econ. & Bus. Adm., Chongqing Univ., China, 2005 )

I remember that. I remember when usability “didn’t really matter” (har!) because, guess what, every single interface sucked and we all still had a lot of patience for resubmitting glitchy contact forms. I remember when the issue was the trust in the platform – dear God, what is this system going to do with my bank account number? – rather than trust in the product. Chinese consumer trust in the process of online purchasing has come a long way in the last decade, but the market is still flooded with frayed seams and rickety handles.

Barrel-scraping levels of trust in product quality have prompted online retailers to pile on assurances to mitigate suspicion, and those assurances have become standardized through repetition.

All the Pics: Tons of Product Shots

On average, you know how many product shots per item in “Women’s Dresses” on Asos? Four. Four product shots per item. Modcloth? Same. About four. Let’s get fancier: how about Net-a-Porter? About five. Urban Outfitters: six. But dresses from successful women’s apparel brands on Taobao? I count between 20 and 30. And this is absolutely not limited by industry. You get the same number of pictures buying a computer as you do buying a pair of shoes. This is, naturally, a trust issue. The more pictures displayed on the sales page, the more likely it is that you actually have possession of that product.

All Up in Yer Biz: Extreme Material & Component Closeups

Not only do Western ecommerce brands show drastically fewer product images per item, they also show those items from a greater visual distance. Product quality is often so low that Chinese consumers expect to see extreme close-ups of material, nails, buckles and hardware, seams and stitching – visuals that will allow them to get a clear sense of the item.

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Warehousing and Production Imagery

Americans pride themselves on a general refusal to flinch in the face of uncomfortable truths, but I gotta say: as an American consumer, I don’t wanna know where anything comes from. Doritos are made of corn? Don’t tell me that shit. And definitely do not show me pictures of multitudinous tortilla chips on conveyor belts. Ruins the ranch-flavored magic. But in China, production process images are frequently presented as proof of connection between sales and manufacturing. “Hey, we didn’t get this off the back of a truck. We take tea in the warehouse. We know the guys who operate the furnaces.” I could see where that knowledge might soothe some souls in less-than-sexy sectors, but I find this baffling and fascinating in cases where the product’s value is partially based in fantasy. To me, as a Westerner, factory production shots suck all the beauty out of, say, this glass jellyfish lamp:

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Right? I mean, at first glance, it is clearly a rare phosphorescent sea creature suspended in glass and in time. Oh, wait, no. It’s not. It’s just another tchotchke churned out in just another brick hut in Hebei. Meh. It almost kills my interest in the product entirely. But I’m clearly not the target market, and this must put someone’s fears of counterfeit jellyfish to rest. We see this applies equally to storage boxes and baby bottles and all manner of things. The tidiness of the warehouse doesn’t seem to matter, just that there is one:

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Dox or it didn’t happen: Business licenses, QA Reports, Awards

Off the top of my head, I’d say 75% of the products I buy from Chinese ecommerce portals display product documentation, proof of incorporation, or other industry awards. From a visual design perspective, this is a clunky and ugly way to establish trust. Plus, come on, only grandma doesn’t know about Photoshop. Still, the fact that retailers feel the need to prove their corporate legitimacy should, if nothing else, hint at the size of the fraudulent enterprise problem.

These jewelers on VIP.com have all the papers:

Chinese User Behavior: Chinese UI Analysis

Deez nutz are highly qualified to go in your mouth:

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This cup is a licensed massage therapist:

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This head towel underwent rigorous testing:

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A lesson in finery: Material Instructionals

Ever buy leather goods in China? No? Never seen the Lighter Test? During the product quality spiel, leather vendors whip out a lighter and hold the flame up to the material. “It doesn’t warp, see? That means it’s the good stuff.” It’s kind of a bullshit test, really – only the cheapest weapons-grade chemical pleather-replacement is actually gonna catch on fire if you subject it to a split second of heat. But it’s more the psychology of the thing; vendors create a sense of trust by giving you the means to evaluate product, however flawed those means may be.

The same thing happens at the pearl market, only there it’s the scratch test. Vendors teach you to give the enamel a quick going over with your fingernail, and if it doesn’t scrape off, it’s real pearl. Again, this only weeds out the shittiest of the shitty, but the vendor has provided you an evaluative metric and inserted themselves into the slot your brain reserves for “dude who is totes on my side”. The makers of this giant cleaver, for example, helpfully remind us that it’s best to buy a blade that looks as though it was forged Valerian steel, not one that looks like it was smelted-down from pile of rusty rebar:

China UI Analysis: Chinese Ecommerce User Interface

A short tutorial in walnut selection:

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I see what u sold thar: Transparency of Sales Volume

You know what feels safe? Buying the same product that 300 other people bought and liked. TMall knows this, and in so knowing, has built that data into a key location in their product description interface. Every sales page displays monthly sales volume totals, plus total number of ratings.

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TL;DR

If you’re doing online retail in China, you’ll need to shore up consumer trust in product quality. Up your product image numbers. Post close-ups that allow for better consumer evaluation. Invest some site space into your brand story. Project some semblance of solidity and legitimacy.

Okay? Okay.

  • I have the opposite problem with YahuOku(Yahoo!Auctions Japan. The Japanese eBay)!!!!
    Any listing on YahuOku is like one tiny picture of the product the person is selling and two if you’re lucky. I asked around for the reason when eBay people post a lot more pictures and I was told that “Japanese people trust each other not to scam other people on YahuOku, therefore the item descriptions are enough.”
    Of course, this is different since this is Japan and not big retailer but just something this article made me think of.

    • Kendra Schaefer

      Huh, that’s interesting.