I have been a proponent of online buying for a long time. Those who have been reading Techzim articles for a while know that I have reviewed and recommended several Chinese e-commerce sites that sell good tech gadgets at affordable prices. Also, the first smartphone I bought was from China so again I know quite a bit about using Chinese e-commerce sites. Today I am here to tell you the opposite though.
You should avoid buying your phone online
Do not buy a phone online from an international site like AliExpress unless you absolutely have to. While my advice for you to do this was quite sound when I preferred it things have changed significantly since 2019 that blissful year when the word corona meant a plasma aura around the sun and not a deadly pandemic that has killed millions.
That’s right. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a seismic shift in how the e-commerce world works to the extent that it makes little sense for you to buy things online.
To begin with when it comes to shipping items from China to Zimbabwe the best and affordable way was to use Post Office companies such as China Post, Sing Post and Belgium Post. At most these companies would charge you around US$10 for an item to be shipped to you in 15-21 days. It was a deadline they repeatedly met in my experience.
That all turned when the pandemic struck. First China’s borders were shut down and in turn, so were the factories and companies that made these phones. This disrupted logistical lines around the world. As COVID-19 spread various organisations were also shut down or had their operations curtailed with most only having skeletal stuff.
This has meant that these shipping companies/Post Offices have not been providing shipping services anymore. If you go on Aliexpress and most Chinese shopping sites right now you will only have the option to use Express delivery if you are in Zimbabwe. That’s an option you should never ever take unless you have to.
For starters do not be fooled by the low prices the shipping companies charge on the site. That’s not the full price you will pay. Once the item is shipped to Zimbabwe and arrives at the airport you will have to pay huge sums of money (around US$30-$50 no matter what the value of the item is) for clearance.
If you opt to clear the item yourself, companies like DHL will still charge you a document fee which is not far from the clearance amount. You will have no choice as they will essentially be holding your package hostage. Additionally, you will also have to pay ZIMRA and in my experience, the F.O.B calculations tend to be much higher if you use express delivery. You will end up paying as much as 100% in duties and clearance fees once an item lands.
Depending on what you bought that might still be a good deal but in most cases that’s going to be unlikely to be the case. For me personally, I would buy small value items regularly for example SD cards with good read-write speeds and SSD drives. Low-value items made sense because 90% of the time I ended up not paying duties on them thanks to tax rebates. With clearance fees and duty thanks to express delivery raising the F.O.B price of these items, it makes little sense to continue to buy such items.
There are better alternatives
There are other disadvantages to buying online too that have always existed. For example, if your device develops a fault it could be hard to have it repaired or replaced depending on the seller. In all my cases though the manufacturer was always happy to ship a replacement without asking me to return the original. However, some people were not so lucky and ended up with non-functioning items.
What I have noticed however is that things have changed in terms of the availability of good Chinese brands locally. Not only are the products now readily available they are actually sold at very reasonable prices all-around. There are plenty of suppliers of Xiaomi products in town and on Facebook who charge much less than what you would pay if you bought the device online and paid duties and clearance fees to companies like DHL.
Not only do you not get to wait, but you also end up paying less. If for some reason the device you get is not working then you can easily get it repaired or just return it and get a working one. The chances of you getting a non-working item are almost zero because this is an in-person sale and the product is handed to you in person by the seller.
The sellers can afford to do this thanks to economies of scale and retailer tax rebates. You see while shipping a single item is expensive when buying from Aliexpress for example, buying bulk items from sites like Alibaba and shipping them to Zimbabwe is a lot cheaper because you will be shipping a lot of items. You can even team up with other retailers and fill an entire container. This reduces the cost of shipping per item.
Even if what you want is not available locally there are a lot of agents that have cropped up who can buy the item for you in China and use their own logistical routes to have the item shipped to Zimbabwe for you. You pay a deposit and only pay the remainder when an item has arrived. While there are scammers you need to be aware of in this growing “agent” industry most of the players have already got a good reputation.
Again don’t do it
I haven’t even touched on the fact that some sites have been struggling to the extent that they went under with little warning. Most notable of this is of course Gearbest which happened to be one of my favourite sites. One day it was there accepting orders, and the next day it was gone. Some people are yet to receive their orders or a refund. They don’t even know where to go to get these refunds.
Seriously do not do it. Just look for a local alternative. If you must check sites like Makro South Africa or Takealot and have a friend send the item by bus once they collect it. In my experience though, Zimbabwean Facebook retailers sell items at much lower prices than Takealot.