The reality of these two marketplaces is that the majority of their use, AliExpress especially, is a marketplace to get direct, cheap access to Chinese goods. Phone cases, electronics, gadgets, clothing, housewares items, and even knock-off goods – a lot of money can be saved if you know where to look. A lot of that stuff you see on Amazon from third party sellers? You can get it on these two sites for probably around their cost, before markup, direct from China (just you have to be willing to wait the 2-3 months for it to arrive in North America!).
I’ve done a lot of shopping on these two sites in the last decade. I reckon I’ve saved probably $300 in cell phone case prices for all the phones my wife and I have owned in that time, not to mention all the other trinkets we’ve needed for the house or components I’ve ordered for electronic projects in that time. But when you’re dealing with Chinese goods, there’s one thing to remember – quality won’t always be good, and things won’t always work. These goods haven’t necessarily gone through the same QA level as something you’d buy in a brand name store where the Chinese vendor has another company, often the name you see on the box, who will be a stickler for the quality of products that actually hit store shelves with their name on it. Instead, you’re buying it often straight from the manufacturer, or some subsidiary that takes care of direct to consumer sales out of their factory. These could be perfectly fine products, but they could also be leftovers, returns, factory seconds that didn’t pass QA for larger brands, or any number of things. When things go wrong, don’t work, never arrive, or simply aren’t at all like they were described or pictured on the website, these Chinese companies suddenly want nothing to do with you; there’s already a bad language barrier there, to begin with, but once your money hits their bank account, they wipe their hands clean.
This is where buying from a site with buyer protection is of the utmost importance. But, not all buyer protection plans are as they seem. Let’s look at the two biggest players in this space and how they differ when it comes to standing behind you, the buyer, who’s giving them your hard earned money.
eBay was where I got started in buying from China, and where I always come back to. eBay was founded in the USA, and also owns PayPal, another American company and their primary payment provider. Over the years, it’s become flooded, arguably degraded, with Chinese sellers and it’s lost a bit of that original flair of being like an online garage sale on a global basis. There’s still lots of great goods to be found for those who are shopping in categories that can’t be overrun by Chinese sellers, but as soon as you enter into anything electronic, housewares or clothing in nature, then buyer beware and pay close attention to the origin of the product!
In the hundreds and hundreds of eBay transactions I’ve had in the last 1.5 decades, darn near everyone has shown up at my door, and they’ve always shown up functional and as described. A few have gone missing, but that’s the nature of the game when buying small items from around the world that probably go through many boats, planes, and vehicles along their way. The ones that never arrived or had issues, eBay/PayPal refunded almost instantly.
That’s the important message here – as a buyer on their platform, eBay and PayPal stood behind me. Proof could be provided, be it via tracking number (for lost packages), or picture/video evidence (for damaged or non-functional ones) and there was no “ifs, ands, or buts” about it – my money was returned.
In a retail situation, eBay and PayPal are well known for standing behind the buyer and taking a “the buyer is always right” approach. For the everyday shopper, this is great and is the support we need. For those with nefarious intent, sadly, this can be taken advantage of too.
AliExpress, a subsidiary company of Alibaba (one of the largest commerce giants in the world) was founded in and continues to operate in, China. AliExpress is purely a business-to-consumer marketplace and isn’t like eBay in the sense where I as a consumer could also sign-up and sell my items. The businesses selling on AliExpress are all Chinese companies and manufacturers, and as you can imagine, there are lots. I would reckon there are probably millions of items for sale on there, and even when I search something like a really obscure electronic component, I can easily find 50-100 different companies selling it!
For a while I had gravitated my sales to AliExpress – I found some items were maybe a bit cheaper, and who doesn’t like saving another few bucks on an already cheap item? AliExpress also advertised, quite heavily, their Buyer Protection program. Guaranteed refunds if your item never arrived, arrived later than the guaranteed delivery date, was broken, not as described, etc. Not that I had any qualms with eBay, with AliExpress seemed to take this a step further with the late delivery refund options too.
I shopped as usual for many months, but then hit my first issue – I bought an SBC and it didn’t support one type of hardware video decoding that was advertised, and I kid you not, the ability to hardware decode that one specific video type was the entire reason I bought the board! It’s a very common and popular video type that offers high compression, at the expense of needing a hardware decoder to play it back. Given it’s growing popularity, I could see the appeal as a Chinese seller to falsely advertise support for something, sell lots because of that, and reap the benefits of all those extra (but dishonest) sales.
I made a claim. I provided AliExpress and the seller full video evidence of the issue, and also backed that with extensive research results and internet links showing developers with a much higher technical aptitude than mine also showing, and justifying, the lack of hardware decoding support in the chipset used on this board. This was nearly a $50 board, and I wasn’t ready to cut my losses and wanted to ensure my claim was very well validated. The seller got back to me, admitting the board didn’t actually support it (but still to this day hasn’t revised the advertisement on AliExpress), and he rejected my claim. It escalated to AliExpress, who rejected my claim too, based on lack of sufficient evidence. Are you serious? I spent months where every Friday I’d live chat with AliExpress, they’d promise me the dispute was being appealed and that I would see a refund in 7 days. The appeal was always rejected, every live chat agent gave me the same runaround 7 days later, and I just cut my losses.
I was getting frustrated at this point, starting to feel like their Buyer Protection only looked good on paper, but had no weight in actually helping buyers. I stopped buying anything on AliExpress more than about $15 (easier loss to take if I have to). Shopped somewhat happily for several months, but then hit my next issue. Two dead wireless charge pads.
I made my claim, backed by video evidence (with sound), and was rejected and told to deal with the seller directly. The seller gave me a WhatsApp (this is getting weird, swaying me away from using the site’s built-in messaging system now), and every day was “off sick and would help me when feeling better”. Conveniently, they were feeling better and no longer sick the day immediately following when my buyer protection period ended on AliExpress!
I sent this all to AliExpress. Full WhatsApp transcripts, a long description of my issue, my video evidence (again), and a description on how it was clear the seller was stalling me so they wouldn’t have to refund the order within the protection period. Once again, about 6 different live chat agents agreed that this was terrible and that I absolutely would get my money back because of this. No money was ever received. The seller then proceeded to start insulting and harassing me on WhatsApp too.
What’s clear here is that AliExperss is a marketplace where sellers are always right. And the sellers we’re talking about are poor Chinese factory workers who are out for money, and culturally, will never bring bad news or issues to their management to deal with for fear of being fired or reprimanded.
Years ago I actually made friends with someone who works in one of these Chinese factories through another venture I was working on, and the stories he told were fascinating. He ultimately was “just another worker” whose job it was to handle their Amazon, AliExpress and eBay distribution and sales. He was replaceable but needed the job to support his family. If his boss felt he wasn’t getting enough sales or was having too many returns or problems coming back on the products, he’d be gone. He’d counter dispute every complaint or refund opened against their products to try and avoid doing actual returns, for fear of job loss or management discipline. Sadly, these products and sales are the foundation of the Chinese economy, and when given a forum where the “seller is always right”, these manufacturers will admit no wrong. AliExpress, as an in-country owned marketplace, is the perfect support system for this. (if I can still reach him, I may try to arrange an anonymous interview in a follow-up posting).
Honestly, avoid AliExpress if you aren’t prepared to lose money every now and then, and definitely don’t be buying expensive goods on there if you aren’t prepared to lose larger sums of money every now and then. On AliExpress, the seller dictates the rules, and the Buyer Protection is just a false shield to make the marketplace look more appealing to North American consumers. I’m not saying people don’t have luck with this protection, but it’s not what they advertise, and on anything of value, it might as well not exist at all since both AliExpress and the sellers will go far out of their way to ensure nobody ever has to pay out a refund to you. AliExpress lets the sellers rule the roost and although they’ll say promising things to you to keep you happy, at the end of the day they will support the seller in any conclusion or lies. When evidence of broken products, or products that haven’t arrived at all, is put in front of AliExperss and/or their sellers, still, they will ensure the consumer is often the one left paying.
eBay, on the other hand, is a buyers marketplace – they have your back as a buyer. This might stem from North American vs. Chinese ownership, and the difference in how buyers/sellers/money are seen between the two cultures. eBay (and PayPal) won’t take shit from dishonest sellers, and there are countless stories on the internet of entire PayPal accounts being frozen when sellers are suspected to be involved in something dishonest. Despite this losing a small number of sales for eBay/PayPal when a seller is reprimanded or kicked out entirely, it still shows that they value the consumers ahead of the money.
My experience between the two marketplaces is black and white, and at this point, I’ll spend a couple bucks more to keep shopping on eBay for my discounted Chinese goods – knowing that couple bucks will have my back if something goes terribly wrong.