The strange case of Taobao vs AliExpress
The other day I was chatting with a friend who lives in Spain and I was telling her about some bib I had bought on Taobao for Baby A. She often orders things on AliExpress and she told me she was going to check if she could find the same ones. AliExpress and Taobao are both e-commerce platforms owned by Alibaba; anyone can open a store there and sell their products. Taobao is all in Chinese and usually only ships to China; AliExpress often has the same products (maybe even the shops are the same) but the website has been translated into several languages and the products can only be shipped outside of China mainland. (By the way, the product names and descriptions in AliExpress are automatic translations and are often hilarious, more in Spanish than in English). I’ve never bought anything on AliExpress and I was curious about what kind of products you can find there, so I went to have a look. I searched for bibs because it was the first thing I could think of and, to my surprise, one of the first results was the exact same bib I had bought in Taobao before. And it was super cheap:
For a moment I even though it was cheaper than in Taobao because I remembered I had paid 29.90 RMB (4.3 USD), but after checking I saw that it was 29.90 for two. Also, this AliExpress bib is shipped for free to the US. Wut?? Sending a postcard costs me 5 RMB and a very small package is at least 50. And online shops can send packages abroad for free?? Yes, it must be included in the price, but it still is super cheap. This bib shipped to the US is only 5 RMB (0.73 USD) more expensive than buying it within China!! What sorcery is this??
I started wondering if maybe the Chinese government was subsidising exports (something they regularly do in some sectors, the case of solar panels being one of the most well known). But, according to what I found on the internet, it’s not that. It’s the UN who’s subsidising them through something called Universal Postal Union. This article explains it in detail so I will just quote a couple of key points: “Postal services within the UPU agree to carry one another’s international letters and small parcels from their point of arrival—say, a port—to their final destinations. They then compensate each other for this service at rates set by the UPU” and “In some cases, [these rates] are below, not just the domestic customer price, but the real underlying cost of shipping. Many developed countries, with higher postal costs in wages, services, or infrastructure, actually lose money on each piece of mail sent to them internationally“. Well, well, well. Now I understand many things. That article is a bit old and it mentions that in 2016 China’s category was going to be changed, but it seems it hasn’t been changed enough yet. Meanwhile, when I want to send a package through China Post I am forced to use the most expensive option (air mail) because, according to them, there’s no option to send by sea freight to Spain. Riiiight. Because everybody knows Spain has no coast and no ports.
But, going back to AliExpress. I was still curious about the prices there so I wanted to check if I could find something that was cheaper in AliExpress than in Taobao. It didn’t take me very long. Look at these fancy fur slippers for babies:
Then I found the exact same ones on AliExpress (the brand printed on the sole seems to be the same):
I’ve suspected for some time than living in China is now more expensive than living in fully developed Western countries, and now I have the final proof! We don’t even have cheaper Made in China products anymore!