Sure, I used to be like you, up all night paging through Instagram or TikTok. That’s great for beginners, but I’ve moved on to the hardcore stuff. These days, when I’m passing time on my phone, you’ll find me scrolling AliExpress.
For the uninitiated, AliExpress is sort of like Amazon or eBay if they were Chinese surrealist nightmares. AliExpress is a subsidiary of Alibaba, one of the world’s biggest retailers, and perhaps the most important tech company that the majority of Americans probably don’t know about. Alibaba connects businesses directly with factories in China to purchase, for example, 500,000 water bottles with a bulk discount. AliExpress is Alibaba’s consumer-friendly cousin. Here, the factories sell directly to you.
Unlike Amazon and eBay, there’s often no middleman curating products for the palate of the typical consumer. AliExpress feels like an unfiltered stream of every single thing being manufactured in China. It offers a window of the global supply chain you normally don’t get to see; it’s overwhelming to know just how many things human beings make. There’s an algorithm recommending products, but it’s got some pretty bizarre ideas about what you might want to buy.
Over the last week, for example, AliExpress recommended I buy a drinking bowl for a chicken, what looks like counterfeit money, and a disturbingly-realistic baby doll (click at your own risk). There was also the “I Heart Microplastics” shirt, which I simply had to purchase.
You’ll also notice, if you look long enough, that you can find many of the exact same products you see advertised on social media, or even sold on sites like Etsy and Amazon—but at a staggering discount. That’s because a lot of the products we see online are sold by drop shippers. Drop shippers are resellers. They sell products that they don’t even keep in stock, and essentially order them directly from sites like AliExpress and have them shipped to you, for a huge markup. If you’re ever tempted to buy something you see advertised on Instagram, do an image search on AliExpress first. You might find the identical product for 90% off.
The downside to shopping on AliExpress is many of these products are shipped by boat. Sometimes the shipping estimate will be 60 to 90 days, though other times it’s just a week or too. If you decide to descend into the abyss and make a purchase, check how long it’ll take to get to you first.
This isn’t necessarily an endorsement of AliExpress. I have personally been scammed on this platform and had to battle for a refund. And there is, of course, an environmental and social cost to this corner of the retail industry, though it’s probably no worse than buying something from Amazon or any other giant conglomerate. I’d much rather suggest you buy something used, or support a small business. But whether or not you click “buy,” I highly recommend you take a look at this Frankenstein of a website that capitalism built for us from the lifeless parts of lifelike baby dolls.
Click through the slideshow at the top of the page to see the weirdest products I’ve found on AliExpress, or just scroll down if you’re on a mobile device.