SHANGHAIAlibaba Group hosted its inaugural Taobao Maker Festival through Sunday at the Shanghai World Expo Exhibition Center, with the aim of celebrating its top, most innovative Taobao merchants. The company is particularly keen to showcase the creativity and ingenuity of China’s Millennials, a driving force in the Taobao Marketplace, with around 70 percent of buyers coming from the post-Eighties and post-Nineties generation and more than a third of Taobao sellers born after 1990, according to Alibaba.

“At Alibaba, we have noticed that Taobao, as the largest e-commerce platform in China, has evolved to a new stage, which not a lot of people really have any idea about,” said Chris Tung, Alibaba’s chief marketing officer. “The new generation is coming to Taobao every day, not just to buy the daily necessities as a shopping channel, but more so they are coming to look around and see if there is anything that fits their lifestyle, interests, or passion points, and create content to introduce what they have found, or to even make friends and form a circle on Taobao. So it’s already an ecosystem within the younger generations that is about creating a new lifestyle and expressing themselves.”

Themed exhibitions at the festival are structured around the concept of TAO: Technology, Arts and Originality. In terms of technology, a heavy focus is placed on virtual reality, with international industry leaders such as Magic Leap, HTC, Samsung, SpaceVR and Sixense in attendance.

Alibaba is also using the event as an opportunity to trial its beta virtual reality shopping project, Buy-plus. Visitors are able to wear Alibaba’s VR headsets and be taken on a 360-degree panoramic view of the shopping process, including a “check for details” function, with 360-degree videos of real-life women modeling lingerie for prospective consumers.

“We want to get feedback about if people think wearing goggles to buy stuff really is a buy-plus or buy-minus. It is still in the experimental phase, but for the technology, we are ready. We just have to figure out how, when, and what is the right experience, or if there is anything we can do better,” said Tung.

Moving forward, Alibaba noted that it wants to work with other businesses within the group to produce premium VR content. The company stated that it plans to support hardware vendors to popularize new VR devices and turn VR into a communication tool that can help companies engage with consumers on a more personal level, creating an inviting shopping experience by taking them into the store.

Art is being represented at the festival in the form of performances by popular Asian musical acts and television shows, as well as a limited-edition sneaker collection. The Taobao iFashion channel is hosting fashion shows featuring Internet celebrities, and key opinion leaders with popular Taobao stores, modeling their latest designs.

“Apparel, bags and shoes are key categories on Taobao because of KOLs (key opinion leaders). KOLs are a world phenomenon, and in China it is most represented by the KOLs on Taobao. Fashion is defined by KOLs, so we are working with apparel brands or famous fashion designers and young, mainly female, KOLs who are defining the fashion direction for the season, and that’s a unique movement on Taobao. The top 100 KOLs on Taobao have at least one million fans on Weibo, sometimes two million or three million, so all together you are talking about 100 million people that they can influence,” said Tung.

Keen to move away from the image of copycat China and promote originality, the festival organizers carefully selected 72 young Taobao retailers, who are showcasing a range of products, from gadgets such as do-it-yourself model drones, to modern takes on traditional Chinese clothing, and 3-D-printed acoustic wave jewelry.

“Again and again people think it is made in China but not created in China, which is so not true. We are seeing people who care about the environment creating bamboo bicycles because we have a great supply of bamboo in China. I can keep advocating this for days after seeing all the people’s ideas, so I really wish that by doing this we can let the story be told,” said Tung.

The 72 entrepreneurial store owners have benefited from the low start-up costs associated with opening a Taobao store, and the wide reach across the country the platform boasts. This in turn has led to increased flexibility for the merchants and the opportunity to become more creative.

“The industry is changing. As you can see today, many young Chinese designers or artists are doing their own thing, from their own inspiration, and they list online and they can sell them. They can make money on them, so they can do more creation and they don’t need to copy. These days, when you list online, the platform can help you do promotion. You get the feedback, you make the money, and then know how to make the next move. It’s getting easier for young people,” said George Feng, chief executive officer of clothing brand Mukzin, one of the participating maker stores.

Marvin Ma, founder of Pidan, a high-quality store selling cat products, and one of the selected merchants, agreed. “Taobao is a very, very good sales channel because I can use less money and show my products to everyone in China very quickly. If you can use Alibaba easily, you have more time to focus on your design and focus on your product.”

Taobao also facilitates financial support for developing brands.

“Last year, we had crowdfunding on Taobao. This is a new product to come to China, so we thought this was the best way to introduce it to the market. A lot of people see it because you get a lot of exposure when you use crowdfunding. [Taobao] have a verification to see if this product is really good enough or not, but we passed the verification and it was very successful. We funded over 300 percent of our target. So we tested our market with that, then we started our store on Taobao,” said Zunyi Lin, general manager of ALP foldable guitars and a chosen young maker.

There are already plans for future Taobao Maker Festivals.

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