Photo Credit: Jewish Press

You know those moments when you realize that something you were counting on just isn’t going to happen and you need to suddenly switch to Plan B? It was about five weeks before Purim last year when we realized that my costume just wasn’t happening and I needed to find something ASAP that would turn me into a giant piece of chocolate to coordinate with our cocoa-themed mishloach manos.

There were, of course, plenty of shirts, sweatshirts, dresses and costumes that could turn me into a giant Hershey’s Kiss or a chocolate bar, but I was looking for something a little more unique. I somehow stumbled upon it on AliExpress, the retail arm of Chinese e-commerce platform Alibaba, where I had literally hit gold, umm, I mean chocolate. You can buy just about anything under the sun on this giant marketplace and it didn’t take me long to find exactly what I was looking for: a unisex screen-printed crew neck top that looked exactly like a box of chocolates, priced at a very attractive $16.19 with free shipping included. Checking the calendar, I saw that the 12 to 20 business day window took me to about a week before Purim, and so, hoping for the best, and knowing that Chinese sizing tends to run small, I placed my order in size XL and sat back to wait.

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And wait.

It took a full week from the time my order was confirmed until my package was shipped and it showed up exactly one day before Purim. And while I assumed that a unisex XL would be roomy on me, in fact, I couldn’t have worn it if it had been cut any smaller. But it did the job, at a reasonable price, and every time I wear that shirt I get compliments, so I consider it a successful purchase.

That was my first foray onto AliExpress and I can tell you right now that with just 1,200 words allotted to this column, I will only be scratching the surface of what shopping on it entails, because there are pages and pages that can and have been written on how to best take advantage of the site that has almost everything under the sun, where cheap chic abounds, and sizing is anybody’s best guess. Need a wedding dress? You can find one here. Underwater lighting for your pool? Magnetic false eyelashes? Rainboots for your kids? Check, check and check.

While AliExpress is a fabulous place to shop for quirky, trendy items at rock bottom prices, including unicorn beanies for your baby and faux leather footstools shaped like hippopotami, there are plenty of perfectly conventional items. You can find just about anything here at the world’s largest online B2B market which, like Amazon, is a sales platform that requires vendors to follow a strict set of protocols, offering buyers at least some level of comfort when making a purchase. I found myself fairly impressed with the way orders are handled, with confirmation and shipping emails giving me the ability to track my order. Once an order arrives, buyers need to confirm that they are satisfied with it, and there is a dispute mechanism in place if problems arise, with refunds guaranteed if certain reasonable conditions are met. Many Ali-related blogs discuss people who have had success buying cell phones and tablets, two items that are both made in China anyway, on the site, but in my mind, AliExpress is more of a place to buy smaller, inexpensive items so that if they don’t work out, you won’t be too annoyed.

Case in point: my second AliExpress purchase. One of my daughter’s friends had a pair of shoes that she fell in love with that came from Ali and because they resembled grey, furry mice, it didn’t take me long to find them on the site at just $16. I measured my daughter’s foot according to the supplier’s directions and sent in my order, but when the shoes arrived it was clear that there was no way they would ever fit. A quick scan with a ruler confirmed that the insole was exactly the same size as the foot measurement, without any extra room in the toe box. While I contacted AliExpress and opened a dispute, but I accidentally sent my responses to the wrong email address and missed out on the opportunity to get a refund although, thankfully, I was able to give the shoes to a relative. Going back onto AliExpress, I found another supplier who had the same shoes in slightly larger sizes for $13 and, after ordering two full sizes up from my daughter’s actual shoe size, we ended up with a perfect fit.

But it was a lesson learned. While there are some items where an inch bigger or smaller doesn’t matter, shoes aren’t one of them and I don’t know that I would want to repeat that experience.

One of the most intriguing items I have heard about people order on AliExpress are sheitels, which typically run under $500 and come in a variety of colors and lengths. Some wig listings on the site are actually labeled “Jewish” or “kosher” and I have heard mixed reviews, with some reporting that they were very happy with their purchases, while others ran into issues with hair color or fit.

Given just how huge AliExpress is, navigating the site can be a little daunting and it helps to be as specific as possible when phrasing your search so that you get the most relevant results. Be sure to check out suggested items at the bottom of the page which may show you other products that may very well interest you or even the same item listed at a lower price.

Shopping on AliExpress requires some planning since many items come from China and you have to allow for extra shipping time. The quality varies from item to item and, yes, there are plenty of knockoffs here, so unless a seller notes specifically that it is genuine merchandise, don’t assume it is the real deal.

What about quality? Again, that will likely vary and if you order a pair of furry gloves priced at $2.48, don’t assume they are going to look anything like the pair you can find in a high-end department store or boutique. Keep in mind that sizing is always going to be a wild card when it comes to clothing so items that give you a little bit of wiggle room are always a better choice. Finally, use American Express or another card that offers purchase protection just in case you run into any issues that you cannot resolve through AliExpress.

Spring is just weeks away, which makes now the perfect time to go onto the site and start shopping for all of those fun seasonal items. Feel free to check out the AliExpress blogs and Facebook groups for more guidance and then check out the light-up Crocs-style clogs for your kids, those blue-mirrored cat-eye sunglasses you’ve been coveting or the round beach towel that looks like a giant pizza. All are priced under $10 – I mean seriously, how could you possibly go wrong?

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