Retail therapy is perhaps one of the last remaining glimmers of fun in my life in these unprecedented times of isolation. But in the face of a looming Great Depression 2.0, it pays to be a little more thrifty. And unlike Depop, where teenagers sell lightly-worn second-hand “vintage” t-shirts for $40, exploring AliExpress has been a fun – and thankfully economically savvy – adventure.
Heralding from China, AliExpress is a mammoth online platform for third-party sellers. It’s similar to Ebay (and has similar financial protections and prophylactic refund policies for buyers), but the Chinese sellers bulk buy straight from the Chinese manufacturers – which reduces prices and increases supply.
At first, I was skeptical, but a friend of mine is an AliExpress disciple of many years, and she convinced me to give the site a try. Common sense is a virtue, and I’d recommend starting small with $1-2 purchases if you’re unconvinced (my first purchase was a pair of socks).
Here are some more tips and tricks to bear in mind:
1 Reviews are Your Best Friend
The absolute golden rule of shopping online anywhere is to take heed of reviews. This is especially essential for AliExpress - where the sellers are random suppliers you’ve never heard of and whose brick-and-mortar stores don’t exist. The reviews are also more comprehensive than most websites, and often include photos of the real product, photos of try-ons, useful info about the product’s quality, material, sizing and shipping.
Similarly, look at the reviews of the product’s shop more generally, and how long the shop’s been active for. The older the shop, likely the more trustworthy.
2 Use the "Free Shipping" Filter
There’s no point in saving money on random items if the shipping costs $15. But so many AliExpress stores/items include “free shipping” - even on items under $5. Just remember to filter your search.
3 Beware Customs Duties!
Customs duties, tax and postal handling services may add significant fees to your parcel. These are entirely independent from AliExpress and its sellers, and are added by your country to imports from other countries.
You should check your country’s rules on fees. There’s usually a minimum value threshold, under which you’re exempt from paying any tax/customs duties. If you’re above that threshold, you should also note that your country’s national postal service might impose a further fixed “handling fee” of handling the customs duties at the border.
Also be careful that your delivery might be delayed beyond the expected time if it’s held up by your country’s customs authorities.
4 Use a Travel Credit Card
Especially if you’re not from the US! The default currency on AliExpress is US Dollars, and there’s a 2% exchange fee charged by AliExpress if you want to pay in a different currency on the website. Some special travel cards (e.g. Monzo, Revolut) don’t charge for international transactions, so you can pay in USD without a fee.
And if you’re nervous about using your ordinary card on a website you’ve never used before, it might reassure you to use a subsidiary credit/debit card unconnected to your main checking account.
5 Delivery Usually Takes a Long Time
Usually sellers will estimate shipping within 30-50 days. Sometimes products might arrive within two weeks, sometimes it might take over a month. This is normal. Delivery in the time of COVID will also, obviously, face considerable delays.
Don’t worry though. AliExpress has a number of protective measures for its buyers: there will be some type of parcel tracking on purchases emailed to you. If you still haven’t got your item within the 50 days, you can either message the seller (which will usually send a replacement) or initiate a dispute to claim your refund from AliExpress.
6 Take Note of Sizing
If you’re buying clothes, look at exact measurements instead of just “XS, S, M, L, XL”, expecting it to be what you’re familiar with. And some clothes might be one-size only.
Asian sizes run a lot smaller than Western sizes, and the professional photos always make the clothes look boxy and oversized. If you’re looking at pants/jeans, be particularly careful. Asian pant-lengths tend not to accommodate people taller than 165cm/5’5”. Customer reviews will be really useful here!
7 Play with Keywords
There’s an unbelievable amount of sheer product on AliExpress. So you have to be clever with your searches. If you’re looking for cool t-shirts or Asian street-style (my boredom with generic high street shops is why I pivoted to AliExpress), I’d recommend throwing in: “harajuku”, “Korean”, “vintage”, “ulzzang”. It’s cliche, but it works.
And if you find a particular thing/style you like, narrow your search further by just looking within the shop of that item, or in the “seller recommendations” and “more to love” sections.
8 Play the Algorithm
Once you’ve bought a few things, AliExpress’ algorithm will start tailoring itself to fit your taste. Big data might be scary, but it’s unavoidable - so make it work for you! Let it yield stuff you’re interested in, and it’ll get easier and easier to shop and sift through what you hate.
9 Be Cautious about Particular Products
Don’t buy things like cosmetics or electronics. There are certain country-specific safety standards those products should hit, and you can’t guarantee that what you’re buying will have reached e.g. EU standards. There are horror stories of cosmetics that’ll harm your skin or exploding hoverboards. Also be careful about counterfeit goods: it’s fine if you want to buy cheap fakes, but they might just be confiscated at customs.
I’d stick to fairly inconsequential things like clothes, random home accessories, stationery - things the quality of which don’t matter too much to its overall use/enjoyment.