Confused by Taobao and Alipay? You’re in luck. Aliexpress is the Alibaba Group’s gift to foreigners who don’t understand complicated payment processes. The wholesale website features clean lines, neatly-categorized products, and relatively intuitive design completely in English.
The removal of the language barrier makes browsing the sea of clothes, bags, stationery, makeup, gadgets, home items, and more much easier than before. The days of translating keywords on Google Translate, plugging them into Taobao, and hoping to turn up a gem are over.
However, it’s obvious from the product names, descriptions, and tags that English isn’t the sellers’ first language. Many item names are simply strings of search engine tags, such as “free shipping unicorn designer laser silver horse clutch bag HARAJUKU unicorn woman handbag horse bag.” But the same is true of Taobao, so at least on Aliexpress you can understand the tags and change your search accordingly.
Despite the broken English and tag overload, the sellers all understand English to some degree. Aliexpress doesn’t allow Chinese input in its messaging fields, which means communication between buyer and seller (private messaging, feedback, and additional comments) must take place in English. The sellers I have communicated with had no problems understanding me and telling me my order was “OK.”
Personally, I found my orders more than “OK.” I’ve bought necklaces for USD 3 each, a lifetime supply of cute sticky notes from Korea for USD 7, and the aforementioned unicorn clutch (don’t ask) for USD 10. I don’t doubt I would have been able to find slightly better deals on Taobao, but it would have required more hours and patience, both of which are often in short supply.
To sweeten the deal even further, most sellers offer free international shipping, making Aliexpress a viable competitor to Amazon – even if you enjoy free shipping with Amazon Prime.
Despite Aliexpress being a “wholesale” website, single units are also available for purchase. You may get more of a discount if you buy in bulk, but they’re often negligible. Some items are subject to a minimum order, but you can filter your search results to show only products available for single-item purchases. In my experience, most are.
I thought Aliexpress was perfect right until I got to the part of the purchase where I typed in my shipping details; I was shocked to find that China wasn’t an option on the dropdown menu. However, I wasn’t deterred because if there’s one thing that living in China has taught me, it’s that anything is possible as long as you ask. I asked the seller over private messaging if he’d mind shipping to Beijing, and he was happy to accommodate me.
Problem solved, I thought, and wrote a fake address in the online form. I was going to leave him my Beijing address in the additional comments, but came up against another problem: the system didn’t let me input messages in Chinese characters.
I found a solution by chatting with the seller about my dilemma: Aliexpress supports the WebATM instant messaging system that Taobao uses and integrates it into the website. Buyers can use their Aliexpress ID to log in and chat with sellers in real time. Chinese is supported by the instant messaging system (different from private messaging), so I sent the seller my details there. While it was a little complicated, the time and money I saved using Aliexpress was worth it.
To top it off, all major foreign credit cards are accepted so you don’t have to have a Chinese bank account or navigate confusing banking and validation systems.
Shopping should be a fun activity, and online shopping in particular shouldn’t be complicated. Aliexpress offers the affordability of Taobao and the usability of Amazon, resulting in an ideal platform for shopaholics all over the world.
Heather Budimulia is a rising college sophomore, beijingkids’ intern and 北京人in progress. Though originally from Singapore, she spent a decade in Beijing and since she learned to bake and fell in love with publication there, considers it her home. When not in the office or storing sleep for college, she’ll probably be in a coffee shop with a good book, her journal or a stranger (or all three).