Why Is AliExpress So Cheap? What You Should Know About the Uber-Affordable Online Bazaar

Bianca Piazza - Author

Dec. 13 2023, Published 4:06 p.m. ET

Photo of a silhouetted person looking at the AliExpress logo on a smartphone in front of a colorful background
Source: Getty Images

The Gist:

  • Online marketplace AliExpress is known for extremely cheap prices on tech, fashion, home goods, and more.
  • With the Chinese retail company's direct-to-consumer model, money-making middlemen like Amazon are removed from the equation.
  • AliExpress has been linked to scams, stealing designs from artists and small businesses, fast fashion, and toxic materials.
  • AliExpress has no sustainability plan or ethical standards guidelines available to consumers, as noted by Brightly.
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"What I ordered vs. what I got" memes have dotted the internet since at least 2016, and YouTube hauls with said theme continue to pop up, poking fun at the uncertainty of suspiciously affordable online shopping. Many videos highlight purchases from online marketplaces like Temu, Wish, and AliExpress.

All three digital retailers follow a direct-to-consumer model, often leading merchants to sell lesser quality versions of what they're peddling.

It may not look like the photo, but the $18 paper-thin dress you've been waiting two months for will have to do. But that's not always the case. A very convincing AliExpress knockoff of the pricy Coach Tabby Shoulder Bag took over TikTok in 2023.

Consumers continue to question why everything is so darn cheap on AliExpress. What's going on behind the curtain at the Alibaba Group-owned online retailer? Let's investigate.

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Photo of people walking beside an AliExpress parcel locker in Poland
Source: Getty Images

Why is Chinese online marketplace AliExpress so cheap?

Though AliExpress sells everything from lace front wigs to motorcycle parts, it's not quite the Amazon of China.

Electronics review YouTuber JM Tech explains it in a nutshell: "Amazon makes a lot of money because [the product] goes from the Chinese company to Amazon, then to you. So basically, [AliExpress] kind of just takes out that middle step."

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USA Today Reviewed wrote that AliExpress "includes a large network of wholesalers that buy products in bulk, making it easier for them to sell at low prices."

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Is AliExpress legit?

AliExpress is one of many international marketplaces under the Alibaba umbrella. Though some sellers on AliExpress may be disreputable, AliExpress itself is a legitimate bazaar.

A pretty product photo and a budget-friendly price tag can be alluring. But if scams are so common — popularizing the "and this is what I got" TikTok audio — why do people shop on AliExpress?

Well, niche items, like on-trend Chinese makeup, aren't available on sites on like Amazon. Those intrigued by, let's say, the Flower Knows Strawberry Rococo Cloud Lip Cream for half the original price, may take a leap of faith.

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"AliExpress is a bit like eBay, but one that is more interested in protecting the sellers instead of the buyers," Reddit user JustOnTop wrote in 2022. It should be noted that AliExpress now has a Buyer Protection Program.

"You need to look at a seller’s sales, reviews, and feedback to decide if they’re trustworthy enough."

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JustOnTop is one of many Reddit users who advise avoiding Western brands on AliExpress, as the product is likely a knockoff.

AliExpress does have a selection of "top brands," which makes avoiding a scam relatively painless. Shopping at top-rated stores ensures that "you're either directly buying from the brand itself or from an authorized reseller," according to AliExpress.

In the eyes of many, AliExpress is neither ethical nor sustainable.

Following in the footsteps of Shein and Fashion Nova, AliExpress has come under fire for selling stolen designs.

TikTok creator Ezra Butler exposed an AliExpress seller for allegedly stealing a T-shirt design from Sixth Dimension, not to mention Butler's own photo.

"If something seems too good to be true, it probably is," the creator said.

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Textile artist Alexandria Masse has, too, called out AliExpress (as well as Shein and Etsy) for allegedly stealing her designs, specifically her crochet dragon hat.

Additionally, AliExpress is part of the problematic fast fashion industry, as many products across the marketplace are made cheaply, with unsustainable, petroleum-derived materials. And, as noted by Brightly, AliExpress does not provide any transparency on its factories or labor practices.

According to the EPA and UNEP respectively, more than half of fast fashion eventually goes to landfills, and the industry is second in line for the most water consumption.

A 2021 CBC Marketplace investigation even found high levels of dangerous chemicals like PFAS, phthalates, and lead in clothing from Zaful, AliExpress, and Shein.

Ultimately, think about where your money is going the next time you want to purchase a $7 crop top on AliExpress — and perhaps go thrift shopping instead.

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