The Seven Wonders of AliExpress

By Mark Peter

“Great Wall of China during Daytime” (one of the seven new world wonders ) by InstaWalli on Pexels

I’ve been on a few ordering sprees on AliExpress, I must admit — others might call it an addiction. It’s amazing that you can order stuff for pennies (cents, or however you may call it) including shipping from across the world — and thus save quite a bit compared to buying at home, where quite a few middlemen are taking their share. The savings do really add up, the more you order from China. I want to share some observations and insights that I’ve come across over the last year-and-a-half of being a regular Ali-customer. Thus, here go the seven wonders of AliExpress:

On first sight it really amazes that AliExpress, respectively the sellers on there, can offer free shipping for many products. It’s mostly smaller and lighter products where shipping is free, so don’t expect to get free shipping on heavy machinery. Having been flabbergasted myself and then having looked into the economics of it, I have found, that, for one, shipping is way cheaper from developing countries as compared to the other way around. Secondly, the Chinese government subsidizes shipping apparently. Considering that, free shipping now makes a little more sense. I have read that sellers sometimes just end up paying a few cents for shipping. Also, they usually keep down the packaging cost by just wrapping it in these plastic bags (all too familiar if you’ve ordered from Ali a few times). As I understand it, free shipping probably is a loss leader for the (national) postal offices of the destination countries, though. They do have to provide the shipping services on a reciprocal basis via the Universal Postal Union.

Depending on where you live and the local laws, you won’t have to pay any VAT/GST on smaller amounts. Above some thresholds though you will have to pay this tax and, depending on product and country, also customs. It still is usually cheaper to comparable products at home. I usually try to stay below these thresholds though. Often the sellers just declare minimal values for custom purposes themselves anyway, and then it really depends if your local customs goes through the hassle of collecting taxes and fees. In any case, you can always refuse the package once customs wants money. It will go back to China and you will get a refund.

Only after ordering from AliExpress for a while and comparing prices to Amazon, I have realized that really many products are just being resold on Amazon — most likely sourced from AliExpress or it’s big brother Alibaba. It’s crazy at what markups they are being sold then — 300% or 400% is not uncommon at all, neither is 900%:

900% price difference on Amazon vs. AliExpress

Buying from AliExpress is like Christmas. Let me explain: since you will have to wait 2–3 weeks on average for your products to arrive, you won’t remember what you ordered (if you ordered a bunch), and will then get a nice surprise once they arrive —similar to what Christmas gifts are supposed to be.
As for the long shipping times: on top of the nice surprise effect, I frame it as practicing my patience — not a bad skill to have.

As is the common expectation — and as is the case with many other oriental shopping platforms — one would think, there’s a lot of fake stuff being sold on AliExpress. But that’s not the case at all. In fact, I would put forth, you can find more fake stuff on Amazon (and eBay for sure). Apparently, AliExpress used to have that problem, but they have really cleaned up their act (maybe even too much). 
As for brand name products: you definitely find them on AliExpress, and they are usually genuine, but aren’t usually a bargain. I’d say you can get better deals at home for brand names. On AliExpress, you do find though, products that are very similar to their branded counterparts, but lack the branding.

Amazon is known for its customer centricity (is that a word? well I mean: customer focus). That was and still is one of the core tenets Jeff Bezos set out with. And it’s usually true. From my experience, Amazon really tries to do right by the customer as much as they can. 
It seems like AliExpress has copied that aspect of business to serve its Western markets (AliExpress is the arm of the Alibaba group targeted at customers in Western countries directly). I have had a few dispute cases, where mainly the product wasn’t as described or had some fault (like a zipper without the actual puller you use to open and close it). In all these cases, I got my money back — without going through the hassle (and big postage fees) of sending back the item. AliExpress has a proper process in place to resolve these issues where they get involved themselves and, from what I’ve heard, usually side with the customer. This isn’t the case for many oriental shopping portals — in fact, it’s the exception.

And, I thought, I would finish with a couple of general hints for shopping on AliExpress: I wouldn’t buy everything on AliExpress. It’s tough to give general advice here, but just be smart about what kind of product you buy. I usually go by the amount of orders, the seller ratings, as well as the product ratings. Also, I would suggest to check the written feedback from customers who have bought the product, and the product pictures they have provided in their reviews. All pretty straight forward, and maybe too obvious to even have mentioned it. Just making sure. browser extension

PS: I’ve recently released the first version of a browser extension that puts the relevant AliExpress products right on the Amazon website — it’s called Check it out here for Chrome or here for Firefox. There’s a screenshot (with some modifications) on the left/above.