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The increasing popularity of online shopping is now a global phenomenon, and China has become the largest internet market in the world. The reasons behind this preference for online shopping are examined in this study through 63 in-depth interviews and five years of virtual ethnography of a major online shopping website—Taobao.com—in China. Chinese customers prefer Taobao not only because of price and convenience, but also because they enjoy the interactional process, during which they obtain more information, feel less pressured to put on a status performance in comparison to physical stores, and pay less affective labor. Chinese customers tend to believe that interaction with sales clerks in physical shops is a burden, and try to avoid this form of contact. This is related to the fact that consensus on status hierarchy is still yet to be established in a society that is undergoing rapid transition. Consequently, online shopping entails social interaction that attributes more power, autonomy and freedom to customers than otherwise possible in brick-and-mortar shopping. This study shows how both the online interactional environments afforded by technology and the broader social contexts (the service quality and related aspects of status competition among different social groups in contemporary China) affect interpersonal interaction.
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