Dropshipping with Alibaba and AliExpress: A Survival Guide for U.S. Merchants

Dropshipping – a business model that allows you to market and sell products on your site without having to store them, ship them or pre-purchase bulk quantities – is a popular option for ecommerce entrepreneurs due to its low-risk nature. It does, however, make sourcing reputable dropship vendors – manufacturers with a high-quality product who won’t drop the ball on fast shipping and professional packaging – crucial to your ecommerce shop’s success.

If you’ve been researching dropship vendors, then there's no doubt you've encountered the plethora of inexpensive options from Alibaba, AliExpress and other platforms that aggregate overseas manufacturers and dropshippers. This might make you feel a little conflicted – should you take the risk of sending cheap, low-quality products to your customers?

Dropshipping...is a popular option for ecommerce entrepreneurs due to its low-risk nature.

The good news is you can make Alibaba or AliExpress-based dropshipping work, as long as you stay transparent and follow the rules of common sense. Start with these tips and you’ll be well on your way to finding great vendors and providing an excellent customer experience:

Both AliExpress and Alibaba give you the option of sorting by popularity when you’re looking for vendors within your niche. Use this feature. It seems counter-intuitive since you typically wouldn’t want products that are saturated in the market or have high competition, but it’s your best bet when you’re sourcing vendors. Don’t worry about competition – your marketing strategy should be ready and able to pinpoint a unique target audience regardless of how many other people are selling the product.

A reliable vendor will have plenty of five-star reviews.

Instead, use the vendor’s popularity as a signal that people are buying the product and that resellers are happy with the vendor. This isn’t a great time to seek out a new, up-and-coming vendor or find a product that nobody knows about yet – an invalidated vendor is a recipe for disaster.

And, don't forget to read the reviews! A reliable vendor will have plenty of five-star reviews. Make sure you can find detailed reviews from ecommerce merchants like you. Short reviews like “Great product!” are unhelpful at best – and at worst – they were generated by a robot.

Test Order Each Product Before Listing Them

Purchase every product as if you’re the customer. Note the shipping time, packaging style and product quality. Does it pass your test? (Good!) Things can move pretty quickly with AliExpress and manufacturers can switch suppliers or materials without warning, so make sure to run these test orders not just before you sell, but also periodically while you're selling.

Another benefit to this strategy is that once you have the physical product in your hands, you can photograph it in use or staged in an attractive setting. When you’re selling the same product as everyone else, you’ll want to make sure your product photography is as unique and on-brand as possible.

Stay Open About Shipping Times

One of the biggest drawbacks to choosing an overseas dropship vendor is the amount of time it takes the product to ship to your customer. Once a product is purchased it can take anywhere from two weeks to a month to reach its final destination. In a landscape where two-day shipping has become the norm, a slow shipping time is a hurdle you’ll need to overcome. The good news is, many people are willing to wait on shipping for the right product and brand. You just need to set expectations as clearly as possible. Tell your customers about the amount of time it will take them to receive their product so that they can make an informed decision and go elsewhere if they’re in a rush.

One thing you shouldn’t do is lie about where the product is coming from or pretend the delay is due to “custom manufacturing” or something of the sorts. When the customer receives their product, they will see that their package is coming from China (if the shipping time didn’t already tip them off). If they feel you misrepresented your shop, your reputation will suffer.

...many people are willing to wait on shipping for the right product and brand.

Offer Refunds

You can offer a great customer experience with a flexible return policy no matter what business model you’re working with, but it’s especially important when it comes to dropshipping. Remember when we mentioned dropshipping’s low-risk nature? Well...it’s not zero risk. You may not be paying for the products up front, but you’ll pay for them if your customers are unhappy with their purchase – if you want to maintain your shop’s reputation, that is.

When you choose a dropshipping model, you take a leap of faith no matter how much due diligence you put in. You accept the risk that your vendor’s products might be low-quality or misrepresented...and it’s up to you to absorb that risk, not your customer. That means you offer refunds if they’re unhappy with their purchase. If not, you’ll quickly become a churn-and-burn business with marketing efforts that focus solely on attracting new customers instead of retaining the ones you have. And, over time the negative reviews and word of mouth will make acquiring new customers impossible.

You accept the risk that your vendor’s products might be low-quality or misrepresented...and it’s up to you to absorb that risk, not your customer.

Double Down on Customer Service

Nobody likes the idea of disappointing the customer – and with a little bit of expectation-setting – you can minimize that possibility. But even if your customer ends up having concerns or issues, you can still provide an excellent customer experience. Products are one thing, but it’s often the customer service that turns casual customers into lifelong fans. So, make sure your customer service is a well-oiled machine – prompt, helpful and friendly. Go above and beyond to meet every customer’s needs, and you will eventually start feeling the impact in turn.

No ecommerce venture is without risk – but with a little effort – you can make it work!

Have any questions about dropshpping? Just ask us in the comments below!