One of the great pleasures of living in China is the ease, convenience and big savings–especially on shopping holidays such as Singles’ Day 11/11 and the newest one on 12/12. A few days after these shopping holidays, you will notice mounds (sometimes little hills) appearing at your apartment complex as the storage lockers overflow with their owners’ bounty. Black Friday looks like a pauper shopping holiday next to the online madness and deals on Taobao, Alibaba, and Bao Pals during these dates.

Package hills after Singles’ Day Taobao shopping

But sometimes things don’t work out exactly as expected. Luckily, the cost is usually so minimal that it’s chalked up as “you win some, you lose some.” Because when it’s good, it’s very good and when it’s bad, it’s often comical.

Here are some of our teachers’ favorite China Online Shopping Failures:

Once December hits, many of our staff kids want to decorate the home just as they did during previous Christmases. It’s easy when the online Christmas trees not only come with lights, but also boxes of ornaments, bows, and garland in a package deal. It even seems too good to be true when a 190 cm (a little more than 6 feet) tree with all the trimmings comes out to around USD $25. Well, it turns out it’s probably a little more like Charlie Brown than Rockefeller when the trees arrive with sparse branches standing under 6 ft on its stand. But put all of its decorations on, and it’ll give a little taste of Christmas.

Taobao Christmas tree

A Christmas tree inspired by Charlie Brown Christmas

At many of our schools, you’ll often find robust clothing and shoe trading going on–especially after the shopping holidays or in preparation for our Halloween extravaganzas. Many of us have adopted the rule of purchasing both much larger and slightly larger than our Western sizes. If you’re a small in the U.S., don’t be surprised if you need a large or even an extra-large in China. Once your purchase arrives, hopefully one will fit and whatever doesn’t fit either goes to your child, or into a WeChat trading group to see if it’ll fit someone else. Last year, a teacher bought three Elsa costumes from different sellers all size Medium: one wouldn’t go over her shoulders, one would fit a pregnant Elsa, and one fit close enough to be just right that it could be worn to school–just not a lot of sitting could take place while in costume.

Clothing fails seem to be exceptionally common. One of our leadership team members once wanted to take a picture of her family all having matching PJs. She found ones she liked, ordered, and they arrived the next day. As she said: “My kids are tall, but they should still be able to fit size 14, right? Well, I forgot that China sizes don’t always correspond to Western sizes. The kids’ PJs were so small, reached their mid calves, and the shirts were really tight. The one success was the adult size I ordered for myself fit. I still made them put them on and take that family photo though!”

Clothing sizes aren’t always the same

Some of the best deals can be found in appliances, and for the most part they turn out pretty good. Since ovens are not commonly found in apartments, many large toaster ovens are purchased online. Often they’ll come with cooking utensils, but not always exactly what you might be looking for to bake a familiar lasagna or birthday cake. It’s easy to find baking dishes online, but finding ones not intended for an Easy Bake oven is where you might run into trouble. There are many stories of teachers ready to bake a large pie or birthday cake, to sadly be disappointed that it may take an entire day of baking to have enough servings any larger than a tea party for one.

My personal favorite failure is when you think you’ve bought one or two items, and then receive a shipment good for 30. Last year for my daughter’s 16th birthday, I bought the famous Chinese birthday candles that open up as a flower. Couldn’t decide on what color to get so I thought I ordered one of each color only to have a huge box of possible explosives arrive a few days later. We tested one over the sink in fear of what might happen, and it was more Fourth of July than birthday candle. The cost for all 30 was probably what I would’ve paid for one of these in the U.S. Too bad it’s illegal for me to transport them on a plane because everyone who saw the video of this birthday candle wanted one for their cake.

I don’t know if it’s part of Tao Bao/Alibaba marketing, but our shopping failures actually do little to dissuade shopping online. If anything, it kind of adds the element of surprise, like opening a present on your birthday. And so, we will continue to hunt for great deals online–proud of our treasures and laughing about our failures.

Rachel Zanardi is Director of Recruiting for BASIS International Schools and a Taobao shopping veteran.

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