A little over a year ago, I wrote an extensive blog for my personal site about my love of Aliexpress — Alibaba’s consumer-grade sister company.
I wrote that post with the contrite tone of a man who realized that placing over 500 orders on the platform in the space of a few years might have been a bit ‘moogzam’ as they say in Hebrew (translation: ridiculous/OTT).
I would love to tell you that I learned my lessons from the stolen mail fiasco, from the many combative “disputes” I have been forced to initiate with sellers (note: Aliexpress doesn’t really have customer support), and from the often abysmal nature of the products one receives from China.
Except that, at the time of writing, my account homepage looks like this:
Yes, I’m now closing in on the 3,000 order milestone rather than the 600 one!
All my takeaways from the post I linked apply equally now that I have amassed 2,500 more orders.
And, for reiteration, those are:
- (Generally) don’t buy clothing from Aliexpress. If you do, buy a few sizes up. Definitely don’t buy cosmetics.
- Know that many electronics are going to break within a year and, when they do, you will have absolutely zero recourse.
- For the most part, you should forget about reliable warranties, good customer service, and other features of Western marketplaces. If you live in Israel, like me, then thankfully the shock to the system that would otherwise cause will be significantly blunted.
However, one major development has rocked my world in the intervening period.
Amazon.com has finally come to Israel — in the form of a $49 and over free shipping deal.
And the country, has frankly, gone Amazon crazy. (As a joke, I started a petition which got mentioned in the TOI piece!)
So — although my reliance on Aliexpress is on the decrease (didn’t I say that last year?) — here are some general observations about buying on it from a guy with almost 3,000 order who’s never even thought about running a dropshipping site.
(If you’re interested to know what I buy and why I buy it check out my original post. It has a lot to do with living in Israel — so probably isn’t relevant for most readers).
Most Stuff Is Frankly Pretty Bad
Before you embark on your next Aliexpress cart-filling odyssey, you should take a quick note of the following chart.
As the saying goes: stuff can be good, fast, or cheap — but not all three at once.
The reason I have amassed such a large order volume is because, for the most part, I buy small items that it would be quite a pain to source locally. The ordering process is also pretty slow so it’s more a one area Venn diagram. But I certainly don’t have any major expectation that my orders will be particularly ‘good’.
I’ve written recently here about my love of multimonitor workstations — and geekery in general.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that my most recent Aliexpress orders have been:
- A DP to VGA adapter. $2.09. Amazon price: $8.95.
- Some HDMI extension cabling for $1.86.
- Some ethernet couplers for less than a dollar.
Frankly, finding all this stuff locally would be more time-consuming than it’s worth.
So instead, once a week, I make a foray to the local post office and collect my haul. As a result, I have every conceivable type of monitor cable, adapter, and converter that one could ever need. My tech cabinet fills up two shelving units by my workstation.
If I find that something is truly useful, I’ll invest in a good quality equivalent from Amazon.
- I won’t be badly out of pocket if the Aliexpress stuff breaks down after a year, which has a habit of happening.
- I won’t be too badly out of pocket either if things don’t break down.
This is absolutely horrible for the environment.
I am aware.
But right now I’m too distracted by my shiny monitor adapters to really care.
Communicating with Sellers in Pidgin English Helps A Lot
Those that know me are aware that I have a penchant for languages.
In high school, I taught myself pretty decent Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese — passing an Instituto Cervantes test and getting top grades in Spanish and French in my Leaving Certificate (that’s the Irish equivalent of what I believe the Americans call the ‘SATs’).
My point in mentioning this is to affirm that — as a language enthusiast and professional writer — I hold Pidgin English in the highest of high esteems.
I live in Israel and, compared to English, Hebrew is a crude tongue with a very limited lexicon (English has about 170,000 words in current use; Modern Hebrew has 7,000) .
For a humble immigrant learner like the author, this is actually a great blessing.
You don’t need to memorize grammar tables or know your subjunctive mood from your indicative to be able to spout out (with gesticulations) to a stranger:
- “Where the shop?”
- “How much the falafel?”
- “When you close Friday?”
When you’re running around trying to buy your groceries before everything closes for the weekend, sometimes intelligibility, rather than eloquence, becomes the key.
Likewise, when talking in English with Israelis, I subconsciously mimic their overall pretty good but slightly warped version of English. (Israelis have a weird obsession with the adjective ‘relevant’ that drives me inwardly crazy!) I once had dinner with a PhD student in linguistics who told me that this dynamic has been scientifically studied. In other words, if you’re a native English speaker interacting with non-native speakers on a regular basis, this will eventually happen to you too.
Aliexpress buyers should be aware that most sellers are based in the Chinese Mainland (particularly Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong).
Some may know English, but the widely held belief, which I endorse, is that the vast majority are using a translation service to automatically parse your queries into Chinese.
Just as, if I were writing for teenagers, I would reduce the readability score of my text to the appropriate level, when communicating with Aliexpress sellers, I try to keep things as simple as possible, avoiding superfluous things like niceties or flowery adjectives.
Here’s what I might write to an FBA seller on Amazon to follow up on an order:
“Dear Seller Team,
I just wanted to follow up on my order number 28242–8242.
It’s been a week since dispatch and I still haven’t received it.
Do you have any updates? I’m not getting much info from the tracking.
Thanks in advance and looking forward to hearing from you.”
When writing to an Aliexpress seller, I would simplify that to:
Order 28242–8242 doesn’t come.
There is virtually no customer service — and people “go home” around Chinese New Year (CNY)
I hate to have to blow my own trumpet again, but with close to 3,000 orders I am at this point basically Aliexpress Royalty.
If anybody at Aliexpress scans my account (but more practically, if bots do) they’re probably assuming that I’m a drop-seller.
Which is a good thing.
As a result of my eminent status on the marketplace:
I get hookups on must-have accessories like plastic boxes of fishing lure:
And runners that look like they were made in a paint factory.
Most importantly, because I’m a “good customer”, Aliexpress also mediates the vast majority of disputes in my favor.
This basically means that if an item arrives defective, Aliexpress is actually swallowing the cost and refunding me the order — not the seller, which is also why they don’t pull a freak-out.
This happens about 80% of the time. The other 20% the dispute process occurs as normal. It seems to be totally randomized and sometimes the evidence requirements are so onerous that I just give up.
Speaking of freak-outs, if you’re not at this lofty level of the Aliexpress fiefdom, then you should be aware that sellers seem to live in perpetual fear of disputes.
(Note: the Aliexpress automatic refund to bulk buyers thing isn’t their official policy and there’s no indication other than the speed at which disputes close that this is what’s happening).
So if you’re a low volume buyer, then you’re going to start getting really weird messages from freaked-out sellers like these the moment you try to dispute an order:
Another great idiosyncrasy of Aliexpress that I have come to greatly enjoy is that sellers typically address their customers as ‘Dear’.
As a result, I have started incorporating this wonderful opening into my communications with sellers.
Another facet of Aliexpress that any long-term buyer will become familiar with is Chinese New Year (CNY).
This is also known as ‘Spring Festival’ or ‘Lunar New Year’.
Around that time, you will start receiving poetic compositions such as this from sellers informing you that your shipments might be delayed.
Speaking of “disputes” — this is quite bizarrely the main customer service mechanism that Aliexpress operates.
It’s usually the only way to get your money back if an item arrives completely defective.
That’s because the only other “customer service” mechanism Aliexpress provides is an (almost entirely) bot-operated live chat system.
If you don’t believe me, take a look at this exchange I initiated with ‘Eva’:
It’s Not Really In Your Interest To Confirm Receipt of Goods — And Stuff Automatically Marks As Arrived After a Time Frame
There are other ways in which Aliexpress’s default system is pretty miserable to the buyer.
Firstly, Aliexpress calculates a transit timeframe for every order placed.
If the product doesn’t arrive within that timeframe then they will be automatically considered to have arrived.
This means that ideally you should:
- Go through your orders
- Check if anything is about to close that hasn’t arrived yet
- Ask the seller to extend purchase protection
Also, I’m pretty diligent about clicking ‘Confirm Goods Received’ so that I can keep track of what I’m still waiting on.
But doing that is actually a bad move tactically because the timeframe during which you can open a dispute (in the event the good is defective) is about 14 days from that point.
What happens if you confirm receipt, put the Bluetooth player on your cabinet, try it out in three weeks only to find that it doesn’t turn on?
You’re out of luck.
Sellers Are Behind The Great Firewall of China
Another important point.
If you’re having artwork designed and need to send a vector format over to the seller (the default messaging system only lets you exchange PNGs) then you’re going to have to deal with the fact that common file sharing platforms, like WeTransfer.com, might not be accessible on the seller’s end.
Sometimes sellers will share their email address with you. The same point about phrasing correspondence in Pidgin should be followed here too.
At other times, they’ll try convincing you that an inappropriate format for the graphics job “will be fine.” I advise pushing back.
Another option is to use a file transfer service that isn’t blocked by the Great Firewall. Search Google for a few options.
Concluding Thoughts About Aliexpress Shopping
Aliexpress can be a decent way to buy up lots of gizmos and gadgets but quality can be so-so.
For buying things like Ethernet cabling, computer adapters, and random gadgets — it can be a good source. Remember the quality/price/time triangle and set your expectations accordingly.
- Brush up on their pidgin English
- Realize there is basically no reliable customer support channel
- Keep their purchase values modest, because quality can be poor and stuff tends to break down relatively quickly. This is a good way to hedge yourself against the otherwise dysfunctional nature of the marketplace by Western standards
- Know that confirming orders kind of works against you
- Realize that sellers might be behind the Great Firewall of China and being evasive about whether they can receive your design work for that reason.
With that out of the way, here are some decent things that I have bought through ‘Ali’ recently.
Good luck shopping!
Bluetooth headphones. These are actually surprisingly decent (screenshots reflect pricing at the time of writing)
An umbrella. Have found these to actually be windproof.
And here’s the output: