In China, where online commerce is booming, the most popular online shopping platform is Taobao.com, which allows users to set up virtual shops to sell products ranging from clothing to stationery to food items. On July 17, 2012, one such shop owner, a young and pretty 24-year-old called Ai Jun, suddenly passed away, attracting considerable attention from netizens who believe that her death might have been caused by overwork.
In the wake of her death, some Taobao shop owners have stepped forward and said that working overtime or staying up all night is a common thing for them. Their lifestyle has become a matter of interest, as recent surveys find that no matter the size of the shop, most online sellers play a lone hand, doing everything from A to Z.
"24 years old, young, beautiful, and with the best years of her life ahead of her. In 100 days, she would have become the world's most beautiful bride. But last night, death took her away," was what Ai Jun's close friend, Xiao Yueyue, posted on her microblog the day after the incident. It soon became the focus of attention.
Many netizens have expressed their condolences and some have noticed that Ai Jun's store had no customer service personnel, which means that she did everything on her own. They have surmised that her sudden death was caused by the workload and stress involved in running her business alone.
Her grief-stricken boyfriend also posted an emotional message on her microblog: "I know you are still with me. We are one person. No one and nothing will tear us apart!"
Ai Jun's parents have said that their daughter's death has deeply affected them and they hope she will rest in peace.
Harried Lifestyles in Search of Profit
Ai Jun's death has also raised the question of exactly how much work these Taobao sellers have to shoulder in order to make a profit off their online stores.
Running Around the Clock
Many Taobao store sellers communicate with over a hundred customers a day and work round the clock.
A recent survey found that most of the active shop owners are between 26 to 40 years old and running on 'overload' mode is normal for them.
A survey released in April this year by Taobao.com also shows that sellers who make a living off the website work about 10 to 12 hours on average per day, and some even reach 14 to 15 hours. Their heavy workload puts their health in danger.
In addition, all work and no play is another aspect of the job. One store owner said that she hadn't seen any of her friends in over a year and that the farthest she had gone from home was the grocery store 200 meters away.
Another Taobao shop owner Chen, from Shanghai, says: "Being a Taobao seller is really exhausting. It's not like what people imagine. We don't just sit in front of the computer all day, clicking around."
Chen's store sells small accessories and she only recently launched it. She runs it on her own and for her, the most challenging task is replenishing her stock. "My legs shake and my blood freezes at the thought of it," she says.
"I usually go to Yiwu, a city in southeast China's Fujian Province, to restock. To save costs, I make it a one-day trip, leaving before sunrise and arriving at noon. The moment I get off the bus, I hit the ground running," she explains.
She also has to rush to catch the last train home at seven in the evening. "Can you imagine a girl dragging a bag even bigger than herself and running to catch the train? That's the stuff of Hollywood movies!"
She usually arrives home around 10 in the evening, and takes the bus home instead of catching a cab.
"If other people are addicted to their microblogs or cell phones, then we are definitely addicted to WangWang," said one Taobao seller, Su Yuli. WangWang is the online tool that Taobao sellers use to communicate with their customers.
According to him, owners of small businesses work overtime because they have to do everything on their own, but the volume of orders they receive is still manageable. However, for a larger sized store like his, dealing with the customers on WangWang alone is insane. "Every level your shop goes up, your customer responses on WangWang double," he says.
"I often talk to 15 to 20 customers at once. Every word is on record. You have to respond to the customer's questions and maintain a friendly attitude. I'm going crazy!" said Su.
How you deal with customers on WangWang is crucial to your business. If you don't respond fast enough, you lose the customer. To enable them to keep an eye on their store at all hours of the day, many shopkeepers install the WangWang software on their cell phone.
"Whether you are on your way to the post office to take delivery or sitting on the toilet, you have to be on WangWang," Su said.
At the same time, coping with possible poor ratings from customers is also an important job for Taobao shop owners. A shopkeeper called Jiajia said that she often pacifies customers who have given her poor ratings and feedback with little notes and small gifts.
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