Taobao Marketplace, China’s biggest online shopping platform, has introduced a new voice search feature catering to older users speaking in regional dialects rather than the official language of Mandarin, as the Alibaba Group Holding subsidiary seeks to boost user loyalty amid weakening consumption.
Shoppers looking for items on the e-commerce platform can tap the microphone logo on the app’s search box and speak their search request, according to a video published on Taobao’s account on microblogging site Weibo on Tuesday.
The system can recognise the dialects of Tianjin, Shandong, Henan, Hebei and northeast China, according to Taobao, whose parent Alibaba also owns the Post.
The official spoken language in mainland China, also known as Putonghua, is based on Beijing’s Mandarin dialect – one of hundreds of dialects spoken across a vast country of 1.4 billion.
Although the government has been promoting Mandarin usage for decades, many from older generations are still more comfortable speaking their native dialects and have limited knowledge of standard Mandarin.
This makes it difficult for them to use the prevalent Chinese typing method on the mainland, which is based on a romanised Mandarin system called “pinyin”.
Taobao’s new feature comes as the e-commerce giant faces sales pressure amid economic headwinds. China’s gross domestic product grew only 0.4 per cent in the second quarter, the worst since the first quarter of 2020, when the coronavirus shut down large swathes of the country, driving GDP down by 6.8 per cent.
In June this year, national retail sales rose just 3.1 per cent from a year ago.
During the June quarter, as major cities from Shanghai to Shenzhen went through various lockdowns, sales at Alibaba’s China commerce business dropped slightly to 141.94 billion yuan (US$21.19 billion), according to financial results released last week.
Gross merchandise volumes – a measure of transaction of goods – on Taobao and sister site Tmall experienced a “mid-single-digit percentage decline year on year”, said Daniel Zhang Yong, chairman and chief executive of Alibaba.
“Our future strategy going forward will shift from a focus on new user acquisition, because we already have within that 1 billion annual active consumer user base essentially all of the active consumers in China,” he said.
“So instead, going forward, we’ll focus on building our relationship, deepening our relationship with our existing user base, better segmenting that user base and ensuring that we have compelling propositions for all tiers and cohorts within that user base to continually grow our share of wallet with the existing consumers that we have.”