Alibaba is one of the largest wholesale websites you can find online.
Countless brands around the world fill up their brick and mortar or online stores with products sourced from Alibaba.
But the biggest wholesale marketplace isn’t perfect.
Some products arrive looking nothing like their picture. And not all suppliers are reputable. So, how do you navigate an endless number of pages of products and suppliers?
In this article, we’ll break down the process of buying from Alibaba.
As you go through this guide write down any question you have. Then head to the bottom of the article and post your questions. We want to help you understand the whole process and make sure you don't leave with doubts!
What is Alibaba
Alibaba is a wholesale marketplace where you can buy products in bulk, affordably. It’s arguably the biggest eCommerce website in the world!
With Alibaba you can buy a single item if you negotiate with a supplier and they agree to sell you one item. However, the real benefit of Alibaba is the ability to work directly with a manufacturer. You’re able to get high volume discounts and create your own custom products from scratch using your own designs.
Now, some people are confused when it comes to Alibaba and AliExpress so we thought we would break down the difference between the two below.
Alibaba Vs. Aliexpress
The difference between Alibaba and Aliexpress depends on what you’re looking for. With Alibaba you’re dealing with manufacturers selling products in large quantities but with Aliexpress you have branded products that you can purchase in single quantities for a slightly higher price.
Aliexpress is the retail to Alibaba’s wholesale. Business owners like to use Aliexpress to test products before placing larger orders on Alibaba.
- You can dropship any of the products from AliExpress. So, you there’s no need to carry inventory, buy products in bulk, making it a low-risk business.
- Manufacturer’s can ship products to your customers for you on your behalf, at a lower cost than traditional international shipping.
- Products can be bought individually, so you can buy the exact number you need.
- AliExpress is best for new entrepreneurs who are interested in: testing a new niche, experimenting with a range of products, low-risk businesses, and running a passive income business.
We wrote a huge guide on buying products from Aliexpress. You can check that out here.
- Greater selection of products to choose from, in a broader range of niches
- Create your own custom products from scratch using your own designs
- Lowest wholesale cost per product
- Alibaba is best for experienced entrepreneurs who: want to sell their own custom products, have the lowest prices, want to have a competitive advantage, and have an existing audience keeping their risk low.
Aliexpress vs. Alibaba vs Alibaba Wholesale
Like we mentioned above, you have 3 options when buying products on Alibaba. The option you choose will depend how far along in the process you are. The best price will always come from Alibaba. However, if you want smaller quantities then either Alibaba wholesale or Aliexpress are better options. We’ll show you the difference with an example.
Example: Charcoal Bamboo Toothbrushes (4 Pack)
We looked at all 3 platforms and found this toothbrush set and packaging. Our goal here is to point out the differences between the three.
First up: Aliexpress
- Price: $2.50
- Minumum Order: 1 Set
Next: Alibaba Wholesale
- Price: $1.68
- Minumum Order: 1 – 9,999 Sets
- Price: $1.10
- Minumum Order: 1 – 999 Sets
So what’s the final verdict?
Make a decision based on the goals you have. If you’re just starting out and want to test products with a small order then Aliexpress is for you. But if you want to start placing larger orders then Alibaba wholesale is the better option.
Once you have established yourself and you want to maximize your profit move over to Alibaba and place the biggest orders you can. Each platform is designed to meet you where you are in your business journey.
Alibaba Vs. Amazon
Alibaba and Amazon are the two biggest ecommerce websites in the world. These are the main differences between Alibaba and Amazon from an entrepreneur’s perspective.
Alibaba is a wholesale directory where businesses find products and Amazon is the online storefront for businesses to sell their products.
- Products can be bought at wholesale prices and then sold on platforms like Amazon, eBay, Shopify, or even Instagram
- Due to lower product pricing, entrepreneurs can make a higher profit on products sold
- Products on the platform are non-branded, so entrepreneurs can create their own brands
- You can sell your products on Amazon but products aren’t typically sourced from there
- If you don’t have your own business but want to sell Amazon products, you need to be accepted into Amazon Associates. You’ll receive a commission for selling products. However, as an affiliate program, entrepreneurs can’t set their own prices
- As an affiliate, entrepreneurs can sell brand name products on their online stores
How Does Alibaba work?
Alibaba is a marketplace for a business or individual to buy products at wholesale prices directly from manufacturers. It’s generally not an online store for the average person.
First, an entrepreneur needs to determine their niche. By choosing a niche, an entrepreneur can find a product category to browse.
Alibaba has a range of product categories from Apparel, Textiles & Accessories to Machinery, Industrial Parts & Tools.
Once you find a product you want to buy, you’ll need to reach out to several suppliers. In your conversations with suppliers, you’ll want to do 3 things:
1. Evaluate their responsiveness.
2. Negotiate prices.
3. Building a strong relationship with them.
You’ll agree on a price, then you can place your order. The inventory will arrive shortly afterwards and you’ll be able to start selling online.
In the next few sections, we’ll be doing a deeper dive into the entire process.
Can Anybody Order from Alibaba?
Yes, anyone can order from Alibaba. Alibaba is the largest supplier directory where a single person can order directly from a manufacturer. But remember that Alibaba doesn’t make anything, they feature manufacturers who will work with both individuals and companies.
Pros and Cons of Buying from Alibaba
Pros of Buying from Alibaba
- Alibaba has the lowest wholesale pricing allowing you to make a higher profit.
- There are millions of products within an extensive selection of niches.
- The ability to design your own custom products, affordably.
- Easily assess reputable suppliers based on their Supplier Type, number of transactions, reviews, and response time and rate.
- You gain more control over your product packaging and shipping allowing you to provide a better customer experience
- You can monitor the quality of products before they are sent to the customer which can help lower refund rates
Cons of Buying from Alibaba
- The minimum order on some products can be in the hundreds. With a higher upfront cost, the risk is on the entrepreneur buying from Alibaba
- Entrepreneurs can face legal action selling brand name products from Alibaba as they’re not officially licensed.
- The product photos aren’t always what the finished product looks like. Thus, frustrating entrepreneurs who receive packages they’ll be unable to sell
- Some niches have their own obstacles that entrepreneurs face when buying from China. For example, in fashion, clothing sizes are often in Asian sizing instead of American which can result in clothing sizes that are too small for your key demographic.
- Upon arrival, some products you’ve ordered can be faulty or broken. Also, some entrepreneurs have challenges with product quality after placing their second or third shipment
- You can’t start selling the same day you place the order. This can add delays in your selling time-frame. Also, if you sell out of inventory, it may take some time before you’re able to restock products leaving customers frustrated
You may be wondering:
Buying from Alibaba Without a Company
Follow these steps to open an Alibaba account without a company:
1: Go to Alibaba and click on “Join Free”
2: Enter your Email address and verify that you own it. Try to not use your main/personal email if you don’t want your inbox clogged up with supplier emails.
3: Fill out your basic information. Password, location, first name, last name, and telephone number. Alibaba asks you for “Company name”..Do not panic. The name can be anything you want, they will not ever ask again.
4: Confirm your personal information and complete the opening of your new Alibaba account. Now you can start buying products on Alibaba.
That’s it! You can now buy products and negotiate with suppliers on Alibaba.
4 Tips for Safely Buying from Alibaba
#1. Validate with AliExpress First
Before you go and make your bulk order on Alibaba, you need to make sure your niche and product are validated.
If you decided to create a yoga store, you might try dropshipping some products that you were interested in selling first.
Alibaba is best for experienced entrepreneurs who’ve already validated their products.
If you’re experimenting with Alibaba on your first try, you could be putting your business at risk, unnecessarily.
#2. Look for Reputable Suppliers
If you’re looking to have the lowest risk buying on Alibaba, you’ll want to check off all the boxes under Supplier Types.
- Trade Assurance: packages arrive on time and products are checked before shipment.
- Gold Suppliers: are pre-qualified, they need to pay a costly fee to attain this status which keeps scammers away.
- Assessed Supplier: the supplier was inspected by a third-party and includes a downloadable report.
While checking off these three boxes won’t protect you completely, you’ll be in a better position than if you were to randomly choose suppliers with no assurance.
You’ll also want to go over their ratings and reviews to determine their quality, performance and reliability.
#3. Don’t Buy Brand Name Products… Ever
Nike, Disney, and Nintendo require licenses to sell their products.
Unfortunately, while Alibaba often sells knock-offs of their products, selling licensed products can result in legal action.
There’s no exception to this rule. So don’t sell branded products.
Also, look out for products with exceptional designs. It can be hard to know all of the latest video game or movie characters. However, if a product design seems to be top notch, it may just be a licensed product.
#4. Hello Google
Before you even order a supplier’s products, some Googling will help you determine whether or not you should reach out to them.
You can use websites like Supplier Blacklist which has user-generated supplier complaints dating back to 2012 on international suppliers.
You can also type in your supplier’s name and words like ‘scam’ or ‘fraud’ to see the results on the page. But keep in mind that business, even yours, will one day get negative reviews.
So while you should read reviews carefully, it’s important to know the difference between a one-time disgruntled customer and a bad supplier.
Look for Common Red Flags in reviews, forums and in search results:
- First product shipment great, second shipment quality issues.
- Broken or defective products.
- Poor factory working conditions.
- Supplier asks for full payment upfront outside Alibaba.
- Super low product price results in low quality products.
Step by Step Process of Buying from Alibaba
Now, let’s do the deep dive into the entire process of buying from Alibaba.
First Step – Choosing a Niche on Alibaba
With so many product categories on Alibaba, it can be overwhelming to figure out what to sell. Ideally, you would’ve already validated your niche prior to buying from Alibaba.
You want to choose an evergreen niche because they’re reliable and benefit from having trends within them.
For example, in our last article, I mentioned that I was in the yoga niche. Yoga has a broad audience and has been reliably popular for years. I sold mandala blankets which some people used to meditate or practice their postures on.
Because I had an evergreen niche, I wasn’t tied down to a product and could diversify my product collections as needed. However, since the niche also has trending products I was able to capitalize… big time.
6 Methods to Find Niche Ideas
This Chrome extension tells you the monthly search volume, CPC, and Competition of a keyword. It helps you see how popular a niche is based on search activity. If you find a niche with over 1,000,000 monthly searches and low competition, you can scroll to see who are the biggest Google advertisers. And you can see top ranked websites for the keyword.
When browsing Amazon, I like to try a variety of product categories to see the best-selling products. Sometimes, you’ll find random products that seem like they’d be a good fit for your niche. Some products from Alibaba are already selling on the platform, so you can see how well they fare on Amazon.
If they have a lot of positive reviews, be sure to look at the dates. Are people still buying the product or were they buying it months ago? This can help you indicate how viable the product is.
If you want more insight into product research using Amazon, check out the Startupbros article outlining the 3 Amazon product research tactics working in 2019.
3. Product Lists
Using search terms like ‘trending products 2018’ you’ll find a range of niche eCommerce product lists. The trending products on these lists usually belong to evergreen niches. Use these lists to help you find what to sell in your online stores.
4. Trend Hunter
While trend hunter often features products from specific brands, you’ll find a range of product ideas that’ll help you see upcoming trends. The website doesn’t give you context as to why the product is a trend so do your research.
On their homepage, there’s a cauliflower pizza crust made by Green Giant. The context is that the most popular diets right now tend to be low carb. Food brands are now using cauliflower, beans and lentils in traditional carb foods like pizza and pasta as healthy and low carb substitutes.
After narrowing down a list of ideas, you can cross-reference the niches on Google Trends. Sometimes trends are too new and don’t have enough search data to show up. Other times it may just not be popular enough.
On average, I like to stick to ‘2004-present’ to see the full lifetime span of the niche. If you stick to evergreen niches like fashion, you’ll see that that while there are seasonal upticks and dips, it generally remains pretty stable.
However, keep in mind that fashion is too broad a niche. Fashion retailers often niche down a bit. For example, women’s fashion, men’s fashion, maternity clothing, plus size clothing, children’s clothing, etc.
Sometimes, when I can’t decide between the final two or three niches, I use Twitter polls to get feedback. I use hashtags like #ecommerce or #dropshipping so that people within the eCommerce community can vote on a niche. However, the real magic isn’t actually the response you get from the people.
Have you ever had someone else make a decision for you and realized you wanted the other option instead? If people vote for a niche you don’t actually want, your decision will become clearer. I’ve actually tried this in the past and it helped me make progress on a new store faster.
These are just some of the websites you can use to help narrow down your niche. Using a combination of all the websites tends to work best. When I plan to start a new store, I usually go through the entire list and narrow down a niche based on data from all these methods.
Second Step - Choosing a Supplier
While most entrepreneurs choose products first and suppliers second, some entrepreneurs find that choosing a supplier is the best way to go to have a consistent style on your store.
Many suppliers offer a range of products that you can sell. It can also be good to have one or two core suppliers so that you can strengthen your business relationship, ensure you have a reliable supplier and a cohesive product collection.
1. Run a Suppliers Search
2. Type in the Product You're Looking For
For example, if you’re looking for fashion, you wouldn’t type in fashion as it’s too broad. However, maybe you’re looking to sell cocktail dresses for a women’s fashion store. So you type in ‘cocktail dresses’ to ensure that the suppliers carry that type of product.
3. Narrow the Search
You can then further narrow down your suppliers to include only Trade Assurance and Gold Plus Suppliers.
Next, under Sort By you can either leave it as Best Match or change it to Transaction Level or Response Rate. Transaction level is a great option if you’re looking for a supplier who’s processed a lot of orders.
Response rate is good if you’re looking to build a relationship with a supplier. It all depends on what your needs are in your dealings with the supplier.
Now, you’ll need to do some work looking up the suppliers that seem to have the types of products you’re looking to carry on your online store.
4. Individually Check Each Supplier
You can click on the supplier’s page which details information like their company bio, response rate and time, transaction level, factory inspection reports, and their main products. You can also send messages to the supplier at the bottom of the page.
When choosing a supplier to work with these are the things you want to look for:
- What are the working conditions like at the factory?
- Are the products they carry what you envision selling?
- Is the rating for product quality above 4 stars?
- How many transactions have they had in the past six months? This can indicate how popular their products really are.
- How many employees are working at this factory?
- Do the product photos look like they were taken in-house or stolen from another online retailer?
Keep in mind that no matter how much due diligence you do, there may still be issues that arise in your relationship with your suppliers.
Third Step - Choosing a Product
With millions of products to choose from it can be daunting to navigate Alibaba’s website to pick products that you want to sell. While you were picking a niche, you might’ve seen recurring patterns of the types of products you should sell.
For example, say you run a travel blog that you now want to monetize with travel related products. You might’ve noticed that scratch off travel maps have been really popular. So you decide to search for them on Alibaba.
As you scroll through, you see that Alibaba has various travel maps with different styles.
...But how do you know which one to sell?
#1 - Minimum Order Quantity (MOQ) vs. Price
Some travel maps require a minimum of 500 maps ordered while others only require one. Do you stick to the ones with the lowest minimum quantity or do you just ask for samples of the products with higher quantities?
You’ll notice that some of the travel maps look the exact same but are sold by different suppliers and at different prices. In the past when I’ve ordered from AliExpress, I’ve made the mistake of buying products with the lowest pricing.
At the time I was selling a blanket. Unfortunately, the product with the lowest price had the thinnest material and resulted in countless complaints. However, when I chose a higher priced version of the same product it had a thicker material which customers loved.
The key lesson here is never base your decisions exclusively on product pricing. Lower pricing often means lower quality.
So, back to these maps.
#2 - Select the Right Supplier Filters
You can start using the filters on top to narrow down your options. Because let’s face it with 849 products to choose from, there’s too much variety to sort through.
Under Supplier Types, you might choose Trade Assurance and Gold Plus Supplier to lower your supplier risk.
Look at Past Export countries, you might choose your country to make sure they ship to your region.
Where it says minimum order (Min Order), you can set a quantity your most comfortable with paying for. For example, ordering 500 minimum at $2.40 a piece can set you back $1200. Maybe you only have a budget of $500 so you add in a minimum order number of 100.
Your product listing results end up with 36 listings. And a quick browse of it shows that some of the products listed don’t meet the minimum order set making the product pool even smaller.
There are about 20 products to choose from. You can narrow it down further by choosing the top five styles you think your audience will like. Then, you can move onto the next step and contact suppliers for samples.
You can use the samples to take product photos and validate which product is best at converting the sale so you know which product to end up order the bulk quantity for.
Fourth Step - Contacting Suppliers from Alibaba
When you land on a product page, there’s a large, orange button labelled ‘Contact supplier’ which allows you to reach out to the supplier before placing your order.
You don’t need to reach out to the supplier before you start your order. However, it can be a good idea to ask some questions to get further clarification on the product.
Here’s a sample of what you can ask in your first message to your supplier:
Your first message should be an attempt to get a sample to do a quality check on your product. For example, if you were selling fake eyelashes, you’d use the sample to try on the eyelashes.
Does the product cause irritation? Does it last a few hours or does it fall off before the end of the night?
Some entrepreneurs hurry the process and avoid getting the sample.
However, not all products are made equal. It’s tempting to buy the cheapest product to cut costs. Yet, cheaper cost usually means cheaper quality.
And the sample you get will either show you that you’ve chosen a good product or you need to find a different product from another supplier.
If you’re happy with the product sample you order, you can send your supplier a second message.
In your second message, the focus should be on negotiating prices, sending details such as logo for custom packaging, including your shipping address, and asking shipping related questions.
When it comes to negotiating prices, wait until the supplier sends you the total cost. For example, if the total order comes out to $522.98, you can negotiate to bring the cost to an even $500 for the total order. Or if you’re looking to lower your cost per product, you can offer to order more products in return for a better per product price.
Keep in mind that these conversations should help you better understand what you’re buying and who you’re buying it from. So treat your suppliers on Alibaba as you would a business partner because they can be some of your biggest allies when it comes to building a successful brand.
Fifth Step – Checking Your Order
Once your products have arrived, you need to assess the quality of the products.
Here are some tips when examining inventory:
#1. Examine and test every product
If you sell apparel, look for any rips or tears to clothing this is especially important for lace apparel. For clothing, you’ll also want to double check the measurements to make sure they’re the right size.
If you sell any products made of wood, felt or sticky material check to make sure there’s no dust or dirt on the products. You might also want to check for any ink stains.
You’ll also want to check to see if each product has every component. If you’re selling products with multiple pieces, you need to make sure every product has every piece with it.
#2. Do a Count Check
If you ordered 300 products, you need to do a count check to make sure you received all pieces. This can sometimes be a problem for higher order volumes.
When you only order 5 pieces, it’s often noticeable if one’s missing. But if your inventory is in the hundreds or thousands, you or someone on your team need to check that you received everything you paid for.
#3. Examine Product Packaging
While you likely want to have your products packaged in your own custom packaging. You might still want to pay attention to how your products were packaged.
Here are a couple questions you may want to ask yourself:
- Does each piece come in a plastic, bubble wrap, or box?
- Were items packaged securely? (This can be a red flag depending on how they arrive)
- Based on the packaging you received, what’s the best packaging for your customers?
#4. Put Out Any Fires
After examining the quality of the products, is there anything you need to do next?
For example, if you receive clothing but it’s wrinkled, you may want to steam the apparel before shipping it out to your customers.
Are there any products that are too damaged to sell? You may want to reach out to your supplier or Alibaba for a refund.
13 Sites to Sell Products from Alibaba
As an eCommerce platform, you can build your own brand and sell from your own website or pop-up shop.
You have control over your own product pricing and don’t need to compete with other vendors.
While you have to do your own marketing, you’ll be able to build your own email list, social media followers and more. Your customer list is owned by you.
Amazon is one of the most popular websites to sell products online, especially from Alibaba. Millions of people buy from Amazon’s website everyday making it more likely that customers will find you.
You’ll benefit from having Amazon market your products for you.
The downside is that while you won’t have to worry about marketing, you won’t own the customers who buy your products. So, you’re prevented from remarketing to your customers via ads, email or other marketing assets.
#3. Facebook Groups
Facebook groups are a hidden gem for finding people to sell to. First, you can browse the Buy & Sell groups for your city allowing you to sell your products locally.
It also helps you keep your shipping costs low as you won’t need to pay for shipping fees if they pick-up your products in person.
You can also try to sell your products in niche Facebook groups with the permission of the Admin, or else you’ll get banned.
But you can also create your own Facebook group so that you can occasionally sell products to people who join. Depending on where your members live, you may need to pay shipping fees for this.
Here are a few marketplaces you can also sell your products in:
Buying from Alibaba can be a great way to sell products online, affordably. While there is some risk with selling products from Alibaba, entrepreneurs can take steps such as doing careful research before working with a supplier.
Ultimately, you need to decide if Alibaba is right for you. If you’re just starting out on your entrepreneurial journey, you might choose to dropship products from AliExpress instead.
However, if you’re looking to design your own products or cut down your product costs, Alibaba may be a better alternative.
Startubros created a presentation to help you launch your first eCommerce business by buying Alibaba products and selling them on Amazon. Check out the presentation here.
Have you ever bought inventory from Alibaba? What was your experience? Comment below!