Mandarake Online, the Gateway to Wallet Pain

This post is more like a user review of Mandarake using my token sample size of one. But I guess lately I had to look out for #1 a little more, because all this spending has taken a toll. Figuratively speaking as well as literal. It is times like this, when I think about consumerism in the context of an anime fan, that I appreciate the monster machine that is Jeff Bezos’s Amazon.com. Between their tablets/e-reader, Prime, cloud services, high-volume hosting services, and of course their online store that sells just about anything, shopping is actually a simple, effortless, and seamless experience. The stuff is there, the only thing left to think about is shopping for a price. It does not take a toll on my mind and sleep schedule.

Mandarake, on the other hand, subscribes to a paradigm of something closer to a flea market…in China. When you’re buying things overseas, it’s not unlike how you really need to know your stuff unless you don’t mind being ripped off tourist-style. Even worse, you can’t quite bargain for prices (although you can play the waiting game, if it is an option (sometimes it isn’t)). You probably shouldn’t expect much different in terms of customer service either. But thankfully it doesn’t smell like a  Chinese flea market, there’s no examples of outright theft and pickpockets to worry about, and there is a RSS feed.

RSS feeds are neat little things. In a way it provides the foundation of Web 2.0 revolution; we can now reorganize the world wide web using filtered syndicated feeds to reorganize and manage the pure, astronomically large quantity of content produced on the web every day. But who cares about that? If you are like me, all you care about are very specific, individualized items of certain niche-among-niche products that cannot be bought direct from a store; or, second-hand commodity goods sold at a discount (namely home video and music, but sometimes also books). Occasionally you can also use them as an “incidental proxy” (which is my way of saying that because Mandarake can sell anything (tho it doesn’t take orders for you), and sells oversea, sometimes you’ll find something regularly sold in other Japanese stores that do not ship overseas in Mandarake, in which it is really just a proxy for you). This is how RSS is useful.

Long story short, Mandarake’s online site has a RSS feed of their inventory (as fast as their data input freeters can type things up anyways) and when pairing it with regexp or something simple (like Yahoo! Pipes) you can make your own notification feed of stuff in your watchlist. I’ll go over some very basic how-to later on how to do this, although if you are sufficiently Japanese and logic-literate you can do this already!

But before we get to that, I just want to give my $0.02 about Mandarake in general, purely from the online store perspective. And to do that I’ll just spell out a few fundamental stuff that you probably already know.

Mandarake is a chain of used otaku goods store. By otaku goods I don’t mean manga or anime-related goods, although that is the bulk of it. By otaku goods I mean what occupies people like Patrick Macias’s free time, which goes as far as idol goods, plastic figures from the packaging of gums in the 1970s, posters of old Japanese chanbara flicks, doujinshi made of words, costumes, etc. You get the idea. Of course, that’s not where the money is; used figures (more along the lines of the PVC crap that has exploded since 2004, but also dolls), artbooks, doujinshi you can fap to (ero or not), and used DVD/BD/CDs are probably Mandarake’s mainstray. And to make it clear, by doujinshi I mean for guys and gals, and even for children of all ages. I wrote about 1kuji and that artbook the other day, if you want examples of what you can be looking forward to in a typical transaction.

It’s important to remember that Mandarake is a series of stores, and the online store is more just a gateway than some monolithic entity that typifies the online store version of some chain store you may be familiar with. This is probably mostly because Mandarake deals in used good only, and they do not need a distribution chain (and thus no such a thing as a centralized warehouse or fulfillment center). You’ve got these people that go to Mandarake to sell things, that’s Mandarake’s primary stock. And each Mandarake location has its own stock.

Unfortunately, this also means when you buy from Mandarake online, you are dealing with these stores as individual sellers, and not a single one. This means if you have 3 items in your shopping cart and checks out, you have to pay your bills 3 different times. Each store will give you a PO sort of thing to fill out, although the store website saves you some hassle by consolidating the shipping info, for example, when you log in, etc. This is mostly evident that for orders < 5000 yen there is a 500 yen handling fee, and if it happens you can be paying that fee several times, when you didn’t have to if all the items were located in the same store. That, plus having to pay shipping separately too as well.

Another side effect is that the data entry in the system totally depends on who is entering the data, which branch they work for, and what it is. And because every single item in stock has to be entered (it’s not like they just stock x items of type y; info about condition, etc, and photos of the thing has to be associated with specific items in stock). From what I can tell there’s not much in terms of standardization of formats. Most of the time I construct my searches purely by keywords. When you are looking to buy specific things, that’s pretty easy to handle. It’s not so simple when you, for example, want to split out all the doujinshi from the main RSS feed into a different one.

Personally I think this is a large business opportunity. Mandarake should hire like a couple gaijins (or just anyone who can design data structures) and work this out. But alas. All this market op as valuable as a black hole. It’s just like how there’s this market op for small but powerful laptops, so hopefully it will be just a matter of time. (That said I’m still waiting for an ultraportable that can play games, instead of this not-netboo-v2-ultrabook nonsense, to speak of another toll.)

As for actually buying from Mandarake, once you identified and located the exact thing you want, it’s pretty easy to enter all the info. Unlike many online shops from Japan, Mandarake actually takes your oversea credit cards (supposedly Visa and Mastercard only, no debit cards, and maybe some others) and if you have a good card set up (eg., one that doesn’t charge that foreign transaction fee) it’s more preferable than Paypal, which they also take.

Once you put in the order, you don’t pay until they are able to find your item and mark it for shipping to you. Then they will email you a payment page in which you can do that credit card/paypal dance. I’ve only used credit card, so I can’t speak to how it works using other methods. Items that are marked as a “store front” item are items in the B&M store (ie., some guy can walk in and just buy it). By putting such an item in your cart and checking out, you may not actually get the item if the item is no longer there (ie., someone bought it between the last inventory check and the time the shop employee goes to fetch it from the storefront), which is why Mandarake also offers the service to cancel the order if something is missing by the time you pay.

The shipping offered vary between EMS, Fedex and SAL. SAL takes its usual sweet time. Packages are boxed and lightly packed, although I also found a difference between stores on that regard. And is it me, or does the Osaka store have the best prices?

I guess ultimately, it also comes down to if you can get over buying used goods at a premium. It’s an odd concept but such is the way free market works. I find Mandarake’s prices generally on the high side. They price their mint condition stuff almost as much as they are new. It’s gotten to the point where the new price (on Amazon.co.jp for example) is only 10% or 20% higher than the used price. It is just nonsense on some items, but if saving money is your thing it may be still worth the while. But usually if that bothers you, you would rather be waiting for a better deal or shop around some more. Such is how the Rulers of Time roll. And things do get cheaper, generally, the longer you wait. Prices changes based on market indicator (Y!J auctions for example), but if you can risk something being hard or impossible to find, patience does pay.

Yes, that moniker is for real. Anyway.

The pipes! I’m going to give you the quickest Yahoo! Pipes tutorial on how to filter the Mandarake RSS feed. First, find Mandarake’s English portal (You can do it from the Japanese side as well, but I’ll keep things simple here). Find the RSS link in the footer of the page (down at the bottom). Now go sign in to Yahoo Pipes! and create a new pipe. Drag in the “fetch” widget that reads the content of a feed into the workspace. Put in the RSS url into that. Next, drag in a ‘filter” widget and connect the fetch widget to the filter widget. In the filter widget, you can add what you want. Like “allow only (一番くじ)” to get a list of all ichiban kuji things. Or “block 【中古】” to filter out certain books. You get the idea. You can make more fancy filters if you want to mess around in Pipes.

Once you are done with filters, remember to daisy chain them to each other and connect the final filter to the “output” widget. Once you save and run the pipe, you’ll get a URL for your pipe, which is the new Mandarake feed now with your filters. Stick that sucker in your favorite feed-processing thing like Google Reader or something else that alert you when something cool pops up, and you’re done. You can even share those links if you want.

It’s a good way to do your holiday shopping…back in November. Speaking of which, this year I probably won’t be arsed to write much on the blog. Way too much stuff is going on and I am really short on free time to goof around online. Maybe I’ll still write something, I guess.

You, do you have any better ways to do this? I am eager to listen.

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2 responses to “Mandarake Online, the Gateway to Wallet Pain

  • NegativeZero

    I’ve always been interested in Mandarake, but as you say, it’s not exactly a cheap shopping experience. Not that much in Japan is. It’s kind of like ebay I guess, except without auctions and more ripping people off.

    Anyway if you’re looking to get ‘won’t ship outside Japan’ stuff shipped to you which is actually available at Japanese online retailers, there’s other approaches. I’ve purchased a few things off Amazon.jp and had them sent to a parcel forwarding company in Japan, who will then ship to me via EMS, charging ~950¥ fee for the service (plus the postage obviously). I use tenso but I’m pretty sure there are others.

  • omo

    Mail forwarding is fine if you buy commodity goods. But in the end you still pay more out of pocket. It really doesn’t compare to Mandarake, since it’s either going to be more expensive, or you just can’t find it on Amazon Marketplace. The closest superior alternative is actual proxies that can pay for you on Y!JA items, but that is a lot more expensive than Mandarake on hot items. I mean if I were to do the same thing for that Fate/Zero artbook, I would have to pay (assuming I could, never tried it) shipping to get Toranoana to ship it to the mail forwarding, and then ship it again. That is already more than the usual 20-30% off a used copy would in terms of the cost difference.

    If you want to be frugal you have to explore all your options. Mandarake is one of the less expensive (and more reliable) options.

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