How to score great gear direct from the source. A guide to AliExpress.

What is AliExpress and why should I use it?

AliExpress is an online store selling products directly from the source. It has a huge selection of consumer goods ranging from outdoor gear, to fashion, and electronics.

AliExpress is an offshoot from the wildly successful Alibaba. Alibaba is credited with opening up Chinese manufacturing to the world. It’s the world’s largest business to business (B2B) trading platform, and provides a verified interface between manufacturers and businesses.

AliExpress is the Business to Customer (B2C) version of Alibaba. It offers low quantity minimums at manufactured costs. Prices can be significantly lower than goods sold in stores because there are fewer middlemen requiring a markup.

AliExpress Benefits

  • World-class pricing
  • Dirt cheap shipping with tracking (Likely subsidized by the Chinese Government! Look for ePacket shipping)
  • Enormous selection of goods
  • Comparable quality to name brands (More on this below)
  • Buyer protection often available

AliExpress Drawbacks

  • High risk purchases
  • Long shipping times
  • Shaky return policies and warranties
  • A more time consuming shopping experience
  • Only generic products (no name brands)

Is it worth the risk?

If you want the return policy of REI; you’ll have to pay for it. It’s baked into their margin. It adds a peace of mind to quality and ethical sourcing that you just won’t find on AliExpress. But if you take on some risk, there are amazing deals to be found. Here’s a quick overview on how to mitigate risks:

  • Buy from only established sellers
  • Refine search by Feedback Score, Top Sellers, Years Open, etc.
  • Check specific product reviews and total orders
  • Read the complete description
  • Double check return policy, sizing, colors, parts & pieces, etc.
  • If it’s too good to be true; it’s best to pass
  • Example: A $50 paddleboard? Probably not legitimate.

    You should expect a hiccup or two, but generally manufacturers want you to be happy and are eager for positive feedback. With most of the items I have ordered, the manufacturer went above and beyond to make sure I was happy with the product.

    How do I spot good quality?

    This is probably the hardest hurdle to jump. Quality is something that’s easy to take for granted. If you get something from Amazon, and it doesn’t live up to expectation you can just return it. Not so with AliExpress. The burden is on the consumer. So it’s important to always be mindful when selecting products.

    It’s safe to assume that a lot of high quality gear is already being produced in China. Nearly all major brands produce their big three (tent, sleep system, & backpack) in China. So there are plenty of examples of high quality Chinese made products.

    On the other hand, there are also plenty of products of dubious quality. The goal here is avoid the pitfall of a bad product. Here are some tips for spotting good products:

    Thoroughly examine photos

    • Do the photos look like something Patagonia would sell? 
    • Does the zipper look sturdy? Does the stitching look consistent?
    • Does the design look thoughtful?
    • Example: a jacket missing pockets. If they didn’t include pockets, the product is optimized for ease of production, not the end user. Best to move on. 

    Examine text description

    • Does the weight / warmth / price pass a gut check?
    • Example: A 1lb sleeping bag good to temperatures of -40°F for $70? Too good to be true, pass.
    • Does it mention down fill power, or fill weight? Does it mention waterproofness? Does the product use high quality materials?
    • Do all the descriptions make sense and agree with each other? Use similar product descriptions from big brands as a guide to make sure nothing looks out of whack. 

    Look for user submitted photos.

    • Do they match product photos? 
    • Are the other customers happy with the product?
    • Compare against similar products 
    • Make sure the specifications, reviews, and prices are similar and within reason to competitive products.

    Pricing gut check

    • The cheapest option usually isn’t the highest quality. But a higher price doesn’t necessarily mean higher quality. 
    • Target the average product price. The prices are already discounted in comparison, so mitigate risk and opt for the best chance of quality over price. 

    Positive reviews (obviously)

    • Don’t roll the dice on products or manufacturers without feedback. 

    Suggestion: run a trial order with an item of less than $10. This way you can familiarize yourself with the process at a lower risk price point. Then once you’re comfortable spotting quality and prices, move up to larger purchases.

    Why is this a new consumer opportunity? Why haven’t the factories always sold direct to consumers?

    It’s best to think of AliExpress from the point of view of the factory or manufacturer.

    In general, most manufacturers would love to have a brand where customers come directly to them for products. However, it is extremely rare that a Chinese manufacturer sells to a big market like the EU or North America directly. The notable exception is perhaps DJI, the drone manufacturer.

    My guess, is that elite marketing and branding are a few years behind. It’s not unreasonable to think that more Chinese brands will break through and sell direct to customers.

    In the meantime, most manufacturers have never had the opportunity to offer their products direct to customers.  AliExpress lets them test the market based on the merit of their product. A lot of times the products are not name brand, but the products could be made on the same line. Or even be a near identical replica, but without a logo.

    Example: this old model $90 UNQLO down jacket is likely the same as this $27 AliExpress Jacket.

    Final thoughts

    Aliexpress is a great place to shop. It has literally the lowest prices on the internet, but it does come with a higher risk. Ultimately, it provides the consumer a useful tool to cut out middlemen and order directly from the source. Using some of the guidelines above, you should have all you need to hunt down and find great products at world-class prices.