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What You Need to Know Before Ordering From AliExpress

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Global Shopping Spree

The pandemic has accelerated the shift to online shopping, and companies such as Amazon have been raking it in as more of us avoid the bricks-and-mortar shopping experience altogether. Some have grown so comfortable with online shopping that they’re casting their eyes abroad to order for less. One of their main destinations: AliExpress, where U.S. customers can buy directly from Chinese manufacturers. Curious how it works? Here’s a primer for the uninitiated.


Related: I Ordered From AliExpress and Here's What Happened

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Online Shopping AliExpress by Marco Verch (CC BY)

What Is AliExpress?

Short answer: A lot like Amazon, but for less. The massive ecommerce site is run by Alibaba, founded in China in 1999 to help small businesses sell over the internet. To say the company has been successful is an understatement: Its gross market value hit $1 trillion in 2020, with more than 960 million active customers worldwide, according to Pymnts. About 80% of those customers are Chinese; however, AliExpress itself is meant for customers outside of China.


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How Does AliExpress Work?

If Amazon and eBay had a baby, it might look something like AliExpress. The site doesn’t sell products directly to consumers: It simply connects buyers and sellers, much like eBay. But as with Amazon, there’s no bidding involved, and prices are firm.


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AliExpress Wholesale Wireless Bluetooth Earpiece
AliExpress Wholesale Wireless Bluetooth Earpiece by Amber Case (CC BY-NC)
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Are Those Low Prices for Real?

If you’ve spent any time on AliExpress, the low prices will definitely catch your eye. There are $2 charging cables, $4 yoga mats, $10 sweaters, $50 robotic vacuums — the list goes on. Why so cheap? Mainly because there’s no intermediary: You’re typically buying directly from the company that manufactures the item, which means minimal markups. Shipping may or may not be included in the price; that depends on the item and the seller.


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Are the Items Good Quality?

Given the huge number of sellers on AliExpress, it’s hard to make a blanket statement about quality. You won’t see a lot of trusted name brands, but Amazon sells plenty of no-names, too. It does mean you have to do your homework. “The best thing you can do to protect yourself is to research the seller,” says Kristen Bolig, a cybersecurity expert and founder of SecurityNerd. “You can dive into the seller’s history by clicking the feedback tab. This will give you valuable insights into their reputation among buyers.”


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How Do You Pick a Trustworthy Seller?

Just as you would on Amazon, check the reviews. Are buyers satisfied? If they’ve posted pictures, do the items look like what’s pictured in the product photos? Mike Sheety, director of Canadian shirt design company ThatShirt, also recommends checking how many times a product has been sold. “If the number is high, that can mean their product is exactly as advertised,” he says. He also recommends buying from well-established sellers, because businesses that have been on the platform for years will have a more reliable track record.


Related: How to Identify Fake and Useless Reviews

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What Policies Are In Place to Protect Buyers?

More than you might think, actually. If you get an item that’s not as described, or you don’t get it on time (or at all), there is a sitewide money-back guarantee. In addition, sellers “often offer their own set of guarantees for specific items, and this is something you can’t afford to overlook when buying high-priced products,” says Sam Shepler, CEO of Testimonial Hero. “There are a few different guarantee tags, but you should look for the most important ones, like ‘guaranteed genuine’ and ‘returns extra.’ That means if your product is counterfeit or if you don't like it for any reason after receiving it, you can get a full refund.”


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Non Authentic Product
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How Can Buyers Avoid Counterfeit Items?

Speaking of counterfeits: They certainly exist on AliExpress. (To be fair, there are plenty on Amazon, too, though The Wirecutter notes that Amazon has a more robust process for weeding them out.) To avoid counterfeits, let common sense prevail. Chances are slim that you’ll get a genuine HydroFlask for $10 when the real thing retails for $45, or real Crocs for $12 when they’re typically $30 or $40. “If a deal seems too good to be true, it likely is,” Bolig says. Bottom line: This is not the place to score a deal on a familiar brand.


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How Long Does It Take to Get Items?

Amazon Prime customers who are used to two-day shipping should brace themselves, because buying from AliExpress is anything but speedy. For instance, when we browsed the site, we found a popular pair of leggings that would take up to six weeks to arrive using AliExpress’ free standard shipping. Officially, standard shipping speed is 15 to 45 business days, while premium shipping, which costs extra, is seven to 15 business days.


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AliExpress Shipping
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And How Much Is Shipping?

Standard shipping is often free. But if you’re not prepared to wait up to 45 business days, faster shipping can cost you big time. “Shipping used to be dirt cheap for everything, but that isn’t always the case anymore,” cautions Mike Miller, Wilderness Times editor and a frequent AliExpress user. “If you’re not careful, an item can end up costing you 100 times more than it’s worth in shipping.” For instance, for those same leggings we investigated above, upgrading to premium shipping would cost $25 — more than three times the cost of the leggings themselves. Delivery within a week would cost a staggering $77 through either UPS or FedEx.


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What About Taxes and Duty?

Believe it or not, you will still have to pay sales tax on purchases made through AliExpress in the majority of U.S. states. As for paying duties on your purchases, it depends. While any applicable fees are your responsibility — yes, your purchases are considered imports — you’ll typically need to order more than $800 worth of products to pay duty. That number was boosted significantly from $200 in 2016.

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What Kinds of Items Should You Avoid?

One handy rule of thumb, experts say: Avoid higher-priced items. “Because you don’t ever really know what you’re going to get, I generally avoid purchasing anything expensive on AliExpress,” Miller says. “Stick to small, inexpensive purchases, so that if you are disappointed with your purchase, at least it isn’t a huge financial setback.” Also consider that the products may not be subject to the same safety regulations that are in place stateside. The site has been flagged in the past for selling unsafe car seats and cosmetics with high lead levels. Again, let common sense rule, and stick to purchases where safety shouldn’t pose an issue.

 

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What About Scams?

Given the buyer protections, you’re not necessarily more at risk of getting scammed through AliExpress than any other website, experts say. “I remember when eBay first became popular there was a lot of apprehension from regular buyers because they were afraid of being scammed,” Sheety says. “Today, I think AliExpress is coming through a similar phase.” Bolig says a classic red flag is when a seller requests you pay directly through their account rather than through the AliExpress platform. “If you go this route, AliExpress will not reimburse you for any purchases,” she warns. “It’s an easy way to get scammed.”


Related: Signs You’re Getting Scammed While Online Shopping

Discount Coupon
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Is There Any Way to Save More?

AliExpress prices are already cheap, but you can still snag coupons to save even more, notes Jonathan Frey, chief marketing officer with Urban Bikes Direct. AliExpress itself offers some, and while you can only use one per order, “they work with combined orders,” he says. “This makes them particularly useful when you need to shop at multiple stores.” There are coupons offered by individual sellers for their stores, and select coupons good for larger groups of stores, he says. You can also get cash back for AliExpress purchases if you play your cards right, says money-saving expert Andrea Woroch. “Download a cash-back plug-in to your browser like Coupon Cabin’s Sidekick to earn cash back when shopping online,” she recommends. “Currently, they’re offering 3.75% back for orders at AliExpress, which is much higher than other cash-back sites. You can even link your email to Fetch Rewards to earn points for your purchase at AliExpress, which are good toward free gift cards to retailers like Walmart and Target.”


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AliExpress Logo on Mobile Phone Display
AliExpress Logo on Mobile Phone Display by Marco Verch Professional Photographer (CC BY)

What Else Do I Need to Know?

Searching on AliExpress isn’t exactly like searching on Amazon and the other U.S. retailers consumers are already so familiar with. It may feel more like a flea market experience, with some seemingly random objects being offered in a search, demanding a little more work for the shopper. And mixed in with the items you look for can be some unfamiliar stuff and even some items meant for adults only. Here it’s not just buyer beware, but browser beware.


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