mobile application of the Chinese online store ali express on the screen of the smartphone xiaomi and package parcel on the wooden table
gutaper/istockphoto

I Ordered From AliExpress and Here's What Happened

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mobile application of the Chinese online store ali express on the screen of the smartphone xiaomi and package parcel on the wooden table
gutaper/istockphoto

Retail Adventure… or Risk?

I wasn't necessarily shopping for anything specific when I decided to look around AliExpress, the online store founded in 2010 and owned by Alibaba, the Chinese retail juggernaut that dominates e-commerce, computing, and all things internet-related in China. While it's a big deal in that country, AliExpress hasn't made much headway in the U.S. Still, rumor had it that everything on the site was far less expensive than the Amazon equivalent. So, it was clearly worth searching for a bargain. 


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Ali Express
AliExpress

It's a Hard-Sell Website

Right off the jump, I wasn't impressed with the AliExpress website. Pop-ups immediately cluttered up my screen and stalled my progress. While I wasn't averse to a coupon or signing up to get an account, I didn't want to get hammered with multiple offers before I'd even looked around the site. 


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A Yard Sale of Products to Slog Through
AliExpress

There's a Yard Sale of Products to Slog Through

Once I was able to look around the site, it seemed clear that AliExpress had a lot of products to offer. A lot. What it seemed to lack, however, was any curation of content. While there may be a customer who needs a dog bed, dumbbells, face masks, and false eyelashes, I don't know who that is (though they could be fascinating, honestly). Seeing a jumble of unrelated products dumped haphazardly on a page and labeled "home essentials" made me a little leery of what I might get if I clicked through. 


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Filters Didn't Solve the Problem Completely
AliExpress

Filters Didn't Solve the Problem Completely

I thought hopping over to a page promising products for kids might be easier to navigate. But toys, clothes, hair ribbons, and other odds and ends were all dumped at the top of the page. Further down the page, it got weirder, with drones, fiber-optic shoes, and postpartum body recovery shapewear.  While I finally found a filter for categories, when I hit on Baby & Learning toys, it was another weird mishmash of products. Pokemon cards and bracelets may teach kids something, but I'm not sure I'd call them learning toys. 


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Brand Names Are Suspect
AliExpress

The Featured Brand Names Are Suspect

One thing I noticed was that I could shop by brands, most of which I'd never heard of, and one I had — Disney. Looking at the products on offer, I was pretty sure they weren't licensed merchandise despite the digital Disney sticker next to the photo. Intellectual property is a new concept in China, and the idea of ‘owning' a brand is still a foreign one. AliTools  has some suggestions on telling real from fake, while Lifewire simply says that if you see an American brand on the site, it's fake.


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AliExpress
AliExpress

Look Long Enough and You Can Find Something

After roaming around the giant digital yard sale of AliExpress, I found the women's category had not only a long list of filters, including color, sleeve length, material, and size but items that looked intriguing. Since I'd been eyeing a Slouchy (essentially an oversized hoodie/blanket with sleeves), I was happy to find several at a variety of prices. But figuring out which one might be worth buying was more complicated than I thought.


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Listings Are Tricky
AliExpress

The Listings Are Tricky

Many of the listings used the same photo, so if there were any differences in the products they weren't obvious — or they used photos of similar-but-different products (a photo of a hoodie with sherpa trim around the pocket while other photos lacked that feature) for the same listing, which suggests you'd probably receive something close to one of the pictures, but there was no guarantee as to which one. Some had a wide price range ($8 to $25, for example), and only by clicking through the options could you find the item that had the lowest price (usually in an unappealing color). As on Amazon, shipping prices varied dramatically, though there was a twist.


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Pick Your Country for Shipping … Maybe
AliExpress

Pick Your Country for Shipping … Maybe

You can choose what country you wanted to ship your product — China, Spain, or France. I tried several times on different items to check out shipping from Spain or France. I never got any choice other than China. Worse, some of the bargain prices could only be purchased from France or Spain — but couldn't be shipped to the U.S.

Amazon
Amazon

Weighing the Risk

Before I committed to a "blanket with sleeves" on AliExpress, I checked for the equivalent on Amazon, the Snuggy — which was more than twice as much. While I couldn't select fast shipping (it would come when it came, basically) and I was suspicious of the quality, I figured my total cost of $22 was worth the risk.

Shipping Takes a While
Cheapism

Shipping Takes a While

By the time I received the hoodie, I'd honestly forgotten about ordering it (I later figured out it had been about a month). The tiny package was a plastic bag secured tightly with what appeared to be orange duct tape, and clearly my hoodie had been squished to its smallest possible size (which was fine for what I ordered, but something to keep in mind). When I unrolled my hoodie, I was happy to discover it was in the color and size I ordered, and it looked close to the photo. So why did the one I saw on Amazon cost so much more? Was that just the cost of branding?


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Low Prices Aren't Always a Bargain
Cheapism

Low Prices Aren't Always a Bargain

I decided to look at the close-up images of the Snuggy on Amazon (they weren't available for the version I bought on AliExpress) and pretty quickly determined one significant difference. While my hoodie came with the promised "sherpa" lining, it was very thin and looked more like the rim of a $2 Santa hat, while the one on Amazon looked thick and luxurious. I noticed some mismatched stitching on my sleeve cuffs, but it would only be noticeable to someone looking for problems (that would be me).

Apple iPhone 6s screen with Online shopping e-commerce mobile app icons applications Amazon, Ebay, AliExpress, Groupon, Wish etc.
alexsl/istockphoto

How AliExpress Measured Up

If I had to choose between the Amazon version or the AliExpress one, I would still choose the latter one. Why? I live in a pretty warm climate, so even though the cuddly sherpa of the more expensive version looked nice, I would probably be sweltering in it. Since this is just something I bought to wear around the house, I'm not overly concerned with the mismatched stitching (and probably wouldn't care too much if I found it on any hoodie) or fabric quality.

AliExpress
AliExpress

What I Would and Wouldn't Buy

Looking around the site, they really do have everything available (though it should be noted the site doesn't sell guns, digital media, software, or ebooks). I would consider looking for cheap T-shirts or sweats in the future. That said, there are a few categories I wouldn't shop on AliExpress no matter how low the price. 

Categories to Avoid
AliExpress

Categories to Avoid

The footwear category seemed to be a mishmash of cheap products (it didn't help that low heels were dubbed "sneakers') that looked poorly made and poorly designed. Saving money isn't worth developing blisters (or worse), and though it was possible to search for shoes on the site for by materials, the "natural leather" category wasn't entirely convincing. I also wouldn't bother looking for anything branded (though the site also has knockoffs called "branded replicas" to give you a heads-up). While you can buy a phone or a laptop, I would be too nervous about reliability (though the site does offer a 90-day guarantee on purchases). And anything I want to meet a specific level of quality for safety reasons (such as make-up or cosmetics) or fit would be a no-go for me. Typically, Chinese sizing is much smaller than American sizing, so be sure to check which sizing standard is being used.


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Buyer Protections Seem to Be Sturdy
AliExpress

Buyer Protections Seem to Be Sturdy

When I decided to click buy, I wasn't worried about a vendor making off with my money. Not only does the website have an entire page devoted to explaining the AliExpress buyer protections, you also get a money-back guarantee if the item is "not as described or not delivered within the Buyer Protection period." You have 15 days after purchase to demand a refund. Better yet, you had a variety of methods for purchase, from most major credit cards to PayPal and even Western Union. So, while I did take a bit of a gamble in opting for the Slouchy over the Snuggy from Amazon, at least I knew I could ultimately get a refund if I wasn't satisfied with what finally arrived.


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