I love free stuff. I almost never turn away any free thing I am offered, except I suspect some sort of diabolical plot behind it. This is Nigeria after all. Now, imagine my absolute delight when I came across a tweet advocating that people take advantage of a 50% discount sale happening on AliExpress.
I did a quick sweep of the website to confirm the sale and nearly got overwhelmed with the sheer number of products available. In the top right corner of the screen was a message offering “a $2 coupon when you sign up for the first time”. I sign up and I get a message to shop on the app for a chance to get another coupon. Right away, I download the AliExpress app.
Some background story: I am a tech journalist covering the transport and logistics beat. Prior to downloading the app, I had never made an international online purchase before. When I saw the discount sale, I saw an opportunity to gain first-hand experience on how it worked.
First, I did some preliminary investigations; I did not want to fall victim to fraudulent schemes. Like product reviews on Amazon, I went on Nairaland to read what people were saying about their AliExpress experience. I also spoke to people who had shopped on ASOS and Amazon before and read a couple of bloggers’ experiences. Feeling confident with the positive information I had garnered about safety, I began my shopping experience by searching for three items: a lightning cable, a pair of headphones and a smartwatch. Three factors influenced my purchasing decisions: my budget, if shipping to Nigeria was offered and how much it cost.
After a few days of searching, I found all the items I wanted: A lightning cable and a pair of Soundcore Vortex headphones from the makers, Anker, and a Xiaomi Mi Band 3 Smartwatch from a third-party seller. I paid with my Zenith Bank Naira debit card on August 29, and the estimated delivery was between September 28 and October 3. By September 21, I got a notification in the app as well as an email that the items had arrived. The headphones and lightning cable arrived one day apart from the smartwatch. On September 25, I went to the post office after they sent me a text, paid N700 in handling fees and that was it.
What I Liked
I liked the variety of options available. It was literally a window shopper’s wet dream. Compared to other Nigerian e-commerce platforms, there was some kind of method to the madness–a sense of organisation and efficiency. Though there were many products, one is still able to navigate the site without getting too confused.
Another thing I really liked about the AliExpress experience was the level of customer interaction and awareness. For every item, ample information is provided about the product buttressed with pictures, videos and customer reviews. The tracking feature on the AliExpress app is another bright spot. I received regular updates to locate my orders the entire time until they were delivered to me in Nigeria. There is also the option to get buyer’s protection whereby the seller does not receive payment until after you confirm delivery of the purchased items.
There are also loads of discount offers and promotions (I counted an average of one every two days). I even got about $6 discount at checkout. The payment process was smooth and the items came in good condition and looked exactly like they did on the website.
What I Did Not Like
While AliExpress’ filters are quite granular, searching for an item you want to purchase can be tasking. I guess it is the gift and the curse of being spoilt for choice. Now if you already know what you want to buy and the cost, that is a different case. But as a first timer, it was a lot to comb through to find what I wanted.
In addition, I was not pleased with the length of time it took to deliver the items. I understand the possible limitations of getting two small packages from China to Nigeria through Singapore, but everybody loves fast delivery times, especially if it is your first time. It is important to note that I chose the standard shipping option to receive my items, which takes two weeks. In comparison, Amazon’s standard delivery timeline is less than a week, and they ship from China too.
One important payment detail: before making payment, you should find out the exchange rate at your bank so you do not go over your budget. You should also confirm that your bank supports such payments. Also when picking up your package at any post office in Lagos, you will be charged a handling fee. There was no list of the various fees for different types of products at the NIPOST office in Surulere, but I was charged N200 for the smartwatch and N500 for the headphones and lightning cable. Someone also told me they were charged N200 in handling fees for a couple of phone cases so it seems to add up. Furthermore, you will need a photocopy of your government-issued ID to collect your items from the post office.
Final word on lessons learned, after your items get delivered to the post office, the tracking feature in the AliExpress app may show a “Delivery Failed” update. Do not panic. The post office will send you a text to you or call you to pick up your items. Once you have collected them, select the “Confirm Delivery” option in the app.
Trust is the biggest reason why Nigerians shop on Amazon, ASOS, Fashionnova and other e-commerce sites. I can confidently recommend AliExpress because everything the platform promised worked like they said it would. I received exactly what I ordered within the estimated delivery time. However, this benevolence does not extend to Nigerian e-commerce sites, which people view with suspicion. There are problems from difficult payments processes, delayed delivery and poor customer service. A colleague mentioned how he bought something on Amazon and it arrived before the item that he bought on Jumia. I have also bought a blue item on Konga, but what was delivered was green. Another time, I received a different item from what I ordered on the Jumia website. It was plastic instead of the steel I selected.
Overall, my first online international shopping experience was good, but I think that international logistics is still super fragmented. Just like it is in Nigeria and the rest of Africa. There too many hoops that your items must go through before they get to you. But it was better than I expected, and I will be making more purchases again, soon.