Doris Zhang, a Chinese mother raising two young children in Portland, Oregon, has a day job with a direct sales nutrition company that gives her a good income. She is also a daigou, or shopping agent, who buys products overseas on others' behalf. Zhang buys US health care products and sends them to relatives on the mainland, ringing up monthly sales of about US$5,000.
"They want all sorts of products, from vitamin D-enriched products for children to adult supplements, anti-ageing remedies and treatments for diabetes," she said.
Most of her items are bought directly from her employer's website. If it doesn't have what her customers want, she gets them at Costco, a bulk-buy warehouse club in the United States.
"The products here are far cheaper than those in China. Even factoring in delivery, there is still a price advantage," said Zhang, who has been operating her sourcing venture for about three years. "But the biggest advantage for health-care products here is their prime quality. That's why many mainlanders buy even if the price is higher than similar products in China."
Claire Zhou, a 32-year-old office worker in Beijing, buys a variety of American supplements through a mainland online shop. She feels she is at an age when women should start to take better care of their health. Her shopping list includes supplements of fish oil, beta-carotene, calcium, collagen, grape seed and dietary phospholipids.
"I think I need these kinds of products. They're not expensive – just around 100 yuan per bottle."
Zhang said she has bought New Zealand honey online for her mother and has asked a friend in Canada to buy blueberry supplements, hoping they will help her mother maintain a healthy heart. "I have no idea of similar domestic-made products, but my overall impression is that foreign items are of better quality and safer," Zhou said.
Individual agents like Zhang are not the only ones tapping the demand at home – e-commerce companies are also showing an interest.
Fan Ruizhen, spokesman for JD Worldwide, the international wing of JD.com said overseas health-care products were "a new continent" for mainland consumers and that the future looked promising.
"As China's economy grows along with people's awareness of staying healthy, these products have gradually become necessities," Fan said.
Tmall Global, a unit of Alibaba that allows global brands to sell directly to mainlanders, had also been working closely to help big names establish an online presence, said Ken Ma, who heads its business development division for brands from Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
Fan said the biggest difficulty in the market was the unstable supply of discounted popular overseas lines to meet the vigorous, steady demand on the mainland.
Zhang agreed, saying many companies set purchase quotas when offering discounts on their products. "If I received a lot of orders – dozens or even hundreds – I wouldn't have the time or energy to go back and forth to stores, buying small quantities at discounts to replenish my stocks," she said.
Wang Qian had a similar experience. She recently returned to Beijing from Melbourne after being an individual trader of health-care products since last year. "During the Lunar New Year period this year, when I took a big suitcase to buy health-care goods at a supermarket in Melbourne, the shop assistant got cranky with me and told me that for each of those categories in their store, I was allowed to buy only several items at a time," she said.
"Actually, a lot of their shelves were empty as the Lunar New Year is a traditional season for Chinese students to return home with health-care products as gifts for their families."