As a dropshipping store owner, you run many risks finding reputable suppliers and quality products. Bad wholesalers devastate your bottom line. Defective or poor quality products drive down your online reviews. Disreputable suppliers offering brand knockoffs put you at risk of store closure. Expensive or unreliable shipping equals frustrated customers.
The process of emailing and calling potential suppliers can be exhausting. Outreach is labor-intensive. So, savvy eCommerce store owners are turning to markets like AliExpress and Alibaba to quickly find thousands of dropshipping suppliers and an enormous product selection.
What Are AliExpress and Alibaba?
AliExpress and Alibaba are two huge online marketplaces that are part of the Chinese holding company Alibaba Group. Both marketplaces save you time from finding reputable suppliers and products, but each has different profit models, integration, shipping, and payment methods. Depending on your business goals, one will likely fit your dropshipping needs better than the other. Here are the differences dropshippers need to consider.
What is a Dropshipping Supplier?
Dropshipping suppliers are wholesalers or retail stores that enter into agreements with wholesalers and retailers. The dropshipping agreement usually splits the marketing costs and order fulfillment between the supplier and buyer. Dropshipping suppliers save money by letting dropshippers handle the expense of product promotion. In turn, dropshippers save cash on inventory space, packing supplies, and shipping costs. The partnership keeps overall costs low.
Learn more with the Beginner’s Guide to Dropshipping with WooCommerce.
Although many people consider AliExpress a wholesaler, it’s actually a retail site. AliExpress dropshippers are technically paying end consumer prices, not wholesale prices. It’s truly what most people consider a “dropshipping site” because it ships individual products to consumers for you rather than selling them in bulk to retailers.
Alibaba is more of a wholesaler approach, offering discounts for buying in bulk. Most of Alibaba’s manufacturers make consumer products. You can find individual products for sale (usually higher-priced items), but the majority of offerings are cheaper bulk items. The market is intended to be an online B2B platform for manufacturers or trading companies, but dropshippers use it regularly.
Orders on Alibaba have a minimum order quantity (MOQ), which manufacturers list as the number (e.g. “100 pieces”) required to fill an order. The MOQ is almost always negotiable with international firms. If the MOQ is too high, make an offer before passing on the purchase. Prices on Alibaba commonly appear in a range (e.g. $40-45). Make sure you’ve nailed down the price with the supplier before finalizing the order.
The products you sell will drive your decision about which marketplace to choose. If you need customized items and a more wholesale approach to buying and pricing, Alibaba is a better solution. If you want to buy ready-made products at any quantity, AliExpress dropshipping may be the better answer. Some eCommerce owners begin their dropshipping enterprise with AliExpress until they’ve built up enough sales volume to switch to bulk buying with Alibaba.
As a wholesaler, Alibaba offers both small items in large quantities and large items in small quantities. AliExpress sells larger amounts of high-margin items like clothing, cell phones, jewelry, and personal care items. For example, if you search for “refrigerators” on both sites, you get results for the actual appliance on Alibaba, but for AliExpress, you get pages of refrigerator magnets.
Both Alibaba and AliExpress have certification programs to ensure their suppliers are reputable and reliable. Part of verifying vendors is checking to see if they actually exist. Some “manufacturers” are just retailers buying and reselling products, falsely claiming they are producing them at a factory.
Alibaba has three verification types:
- A&V Check — “Gold Suppliers” have passed authentication and verification inspection by the company as well as a third party.
- Onsite Check — Alibaba staff verify the supplier’s basic company information is accurate and that the manufacturing facilities physically exist.
- Assessed Supplier — Third-party verification of supplier claims about products.
Here’s more information on Alibaba’s verification process.
AliExpress supplier verification may feel more familiar—it’s similar to vendor ratings on eBay and Amazon. The site displays “Feedback Scores” on products and overall seller ratings on communication and shipping speed.
Some suppliers display AliExpress’s Buyer Protection plan on their orders. These plans guarantee refunds for late or wrong shipments.
AliExpress and Alibaba have different products and pricing structures, which impacts your buying experience. Because AliExpress is a retailer, it offers more consumer-type payment options like credit cards. Alibaba focuses on international wholesale markets, so its payment options are optimized for larger transactions.
AliExpress dropshipping offers different payment methods for purchases made in-app (Android / Apple) versus on a website. Credit card purchasers can use Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Maestro. Dropshippers wanting more traditional banking methods use wire transfers or Western Union. This is only a partial list of all AliExpress payment methods.
AliExpress also has a PayPal-like credit and debit card service called AliPay. Even though you’re able to use the same buyer account on Alibaba and AliExpress, AliPay is currently only available on AliExpress.
Alibaba transactions usually involve large international shipments and large sums of money. The platform supports traditional wire transfers, telegraphic transfers (T/T), letters of credit, lines of credit, and eChecks. But you can also pay with credit cards in some cases.
Shipping costs on Alibaba and AliExpress depend on who you are buying from—manufacturers and retailers set their own prices. Many suppliers offer “free shipping”, but they’re simply rolling the costs over into the unit price just like dropshippers.
Like Alibaba, many orders come from China. So some items may take weeks. Check shipping times for a vendor by purchasing a small, inexpensive item to test. You’ll see how the vendor communicates and how long your order takes to process, ship, and arrive.
Shipping with Alibaba is a much different experience. Orders are larger and arrive at ports via boats. Some shipping costs include “Free on Board”. This means the costs of delivering the products to port is included in the prices. However, you are responsible for shipping costs from the port to your storage destination. Shipments to port can take up to six weeks depending on the destination and order size.
Shipping insurance with Alibaba is an option to consider. Cost Insurance and Freight (CIF) stipulates that the supplier pays the freight insurance up to the destination port. You take responsibility for damages from there.
What to Ask a Supplier
Whether you’re using AliExpress, Alibaba, or finding suppliers yourself, good communication with vendors and manufacturers helps ensure fast delivery times and happy customers. Every situation will be different, but you must ask the right questions to protect your interests.
- What’s the final price? Alibaba prices come in ranges. Nail down the final price before you commit to the purchase.
- What is the production time for my order? Figure in the amount of time it takes for the manufacturer to actually produce your order, not just ship it to you.
- How long will it take to receive my order? Customers want to know when they’re getting their stuff. Get good estimates on shipping times and keep customers satisfied.
- What’s the minimum order quantity (MOQ)? This is often negotiable. If you can’t afford their minimum order, haggle.
- What are the shipping cost estimates for this product? Accurate shipping costs are critical to figuring your markup. Omit this question at your peril.
- Do you provide samples? An easy way to check a company’s quality control is to sample their products.
- Do you have any references? Ask for examples of other stores who sell their products.
Adding Dropshipping Products to Your Store
To sell dropship items, you need to import them to your WooCommerce website so customers can see them. You can do this manually by copy and pasting descriptions and adding product images. Items on AliExpress are easy to import either manually or automatically. If you’re only handling a few dozen items, importing manually works. But store owners who are selling hundreds or thousands of items need a more practical strategy.
Several online services like Ezusy or WooDropship let you automate importing AliExpress products to your WooCommerce store. With a few clicks, you’ll be able to select hundreds of products to import. If you’d rather buy than subscribe, look into a WooCommerce dropshipping plugin that will perform the same automated product import.
There are no automated services or plugins for Alibaba because most dropshippers change the market’s bulk product listings to individual items to sell in their stores. Importing the description and images for a list of “500 Christmas Bulbs” doesn’t work for a dropshipping site selling individual items.
Don’t think of AliExpress or Alibaba as an either-or choice. Instead, use them as two parts of a single strategy to meet your short-term and long-term business goals. Use the low startup costs of AliExpress to get your business off the ground. As you grow, switch to storing your own inventory and take advantage of the wholesale prices Alibaba offers. Mix this strategy with good marketing, and you’ll have an edge on your dropshipping competitors.