Pity the Chinese personal shopper. Life used to be easy for the daigou: women, usually young, who travelled the world to bring back foreign bargains for the handbag-hungry masses back home.
They'd trawl for Guccis by day, and feed off the fat margins at night as luxury goods were much cheaper in European capitals than in China, where duties, taxes and the laws of supply and demand led to inflated Pradas and Louis Vuittons. Buy high, sell higher — but not quite so high as in the luxury mall back home: that was the daigoubusiness model. Call it handbag arbitrage.
The wise daigou didn't give up her day job since what she was doing wasn't strictly legal; but at the very least she got the odd free trip to Paris out of it. It could never last and it hasn't. Beijing has tweaked taxes, some luxury brands have tweaked prices, and these days people are handling their own daigou needs. With 120m Chinese travelling overseas last year, there are plenty who can arbitrage their own face creams, stilettos and whatnot. They've become their own personal shoppers.
The daigou business for luxury goods has come off the boil, according to Bain & Co's 2015 China Luxury Market Study, which estimated that the business was down by more than a third year on year — from Rmb55bn ($8.5bn) to Rmb75bn ($11.5bn) in 2014, to between Rmb34bn and Rmb50bn last year. It's not a case of China cutting its coat according to the cloth of its slowing growth, though: mainlanders are still spending plenty on luxury goods. They are just doing more of their own bargain-hunting — and daigouare facing tighter customs scrutiny. The weaker renminbi won't have helped.
So these are hard times for the average daigou diva. But they're a clever lot and they've figured out how to give today's Chinese market what it really wants from a personal shopper: increasingly it is sanitary towels, gummy vitamins and "waterproof baby belly button bandages". It must take a lot of tampon arbitrage to make a viable business model.
And it can't be nearly so much fun either: scouting for deals at Galeries Lafayette sounds a lot more appealing than picking through the unmentionables bin at the local discount pharmacy.
Catherine is a part-time Chinese daigou living in Germany who entered the business six months ago. "I thought it was too late, the best days of daigou were over," she tells the Financial Times. But she's found plenty of demand for baby products and even snacks. "Knoppers wafers from Germany, Japanese 'raw' chocolate and Russian cake — shoppers love them," she says.
She buys overseas and ships to China, factoring postage and her profit into the price. "I still have confidence in the business because there are so many fakes in China," she says. The cheapest thing Catherine has sold in this way is infant umbilical bandages, she says; another personal shopper says her cheapest item is "Japanese double eyelid tape".
"At first I just wanted to earn some pocket money," Catherine explains, "but then my appetite for building a career was aroused." That was before she realised how much work it is, and how low the profits are, she says. She offers selling baby formula milk, a popular product for daigou, as an example.
"Six cans of formula weigh 4.8kg [the maximum that customs allows per package]. I get Rmb198 for selling one can of formula but I can spend more than an hour on the packaging. Sometimes supermarkets limit formula sales to only one can per purchase . . . and sometimes none is available. Considering the time involved and the cost, the profit is low. I don't plan to daigou formula in the future."
So Chinese personal shopping has come down in the world, as a profession. Arbitrage opportunities for double eyelid tape notwithstanding, it's a tough world out there in these days of daigou slowdown.
But never underestimate the ability of the average mainlander to create a business opportunity, where none existed beforehand. Today, tampons; tomorrow, the world.