A Lacoste Handbag for $20? Made in China.com

The Far East has never been so close. A series of Asian websites offer the Israeli surfer an opportunity to purchase brand name fashions and cosmetics at low prices, all year round.

Eden, 40, no longer bothers to go to the major drugstore chains. She now purchases all her cosmetics on strawberrynet.com, a website that sells leading brand name cosmetics. On the site you can find creams, grooming products, perfumes and makeup from the top manufacturers such as Clinique, Elizabeth Arden, L'Occitane and Lancome. Its interface is very user-friendly, and on entry the surfer is identified as an Israeli - so the language of the site changes to Hebrew and the prices are quoted in shekels. The bonus offered by strawberrynet is free delivery anywhere in the world, including Israel.

"I haven't entered Israeli drugstores for the past three years, and if I do, it's only to check which lipstick or cream suits me, so I can order it from the website," says Eden. "I can't stand the saleswomen in the drugstores. I have the feeling that they always want to push something on me that doesn't suit me."

Ayala Tal - 23122011
Ayala Tal

Eden did the math and found that the website's prices are about 30 percent lower than those in the chain stores. "But it's not only the price, it's the service, too," she emphasizes. "The products always arrive on time, in a shiny and attractive package, and every request is answered quickly. I once received a refund for a lipstick whose smell I didn't like. I wrote to them without any expectations, and they simply gave me credit for the entire sum, without asking questions."

Strawberrynet is only one of the East Asian shopping sites in the field of fashion and cosmetics that enable manufacturers to deal directly with consumers, and they have become popular with Israelis. But the sites are not immune to criticism, and some cast doubt on the authenticity of the products. Recently a British blogger accused the site of a lack of transparency. The average surfer, she claims, has difficulty understanding that the products originate in Hong Kong. She also published customers' complaints about the company.

The response was immediate. The blogger was flooded with angry e-mails from satisfied customers, and admitted that although she still finds it difficult to recommend the site, it wasn't right to doubt its reliability based on a few customers' complaints. The site, incidentally, also sells via eBay, where it is specified that the products come from Hong Kong.

To the website's credit it should be noted that it excels in another type of proper disclosure: It enables the purchase of products whose expiration date is approaching, at low prices. In those cases the expiration date of the product is provided, and the consumer can decide whether or not to purchase it.

Don't bid - bargain

iOffer.com is a website that doesn't originate in the Far East, but most of the manufacturers who sell through it do. On this site you can find fashion items, bags and accessories from the leading manufacturers - including the popular UGG boots, bags from Josie Couture and Nike shirts.

The purchasing method is based on bargaining between the seller and the buyer. After registering and receiving user information, surfers can enter the page on which the item is presented at a specific price, and decide whether to buy it at the offered price or to make a counter-offer. That is how the bargaining begins, until the sides reach an agreement. The transaction can end at any stage if one of the parties is not interested in continuing, and it won't be implemented until there's an agreement on the price. If you change your mind you can always change the offer, or ask the seller questions about the item. This pricing method differs from that of eBay, where surfers make a bid, and clicking on the bid is like a promise to pay.

iOffer's advantage is free delivery. A major drawback is that not all the sellers use PayPal or even credit cards, and in order to pay you have to send cash - by mail. Anyone who doesn't want to get involved in this complicated transaction should check in advance what means of payment is demanded by the seller.

"Most probably not a knockoff"

Another site is the Chinese version of eBay taobao.com which, as opposed to the previous two sites, is not user-friendly for those who don't speak Mandarin. The references and information are in Mandarin, a problem that can be overcome by using Google Translation. Payment is by means of Alipay, the Chinese equivalent of PayPal. The delivery address also has to be in China, and only in special cases and after negotiations with the seller is the package sent abroad directly.

Tal Nahman, who writes the the-crafeteria blog, which is about arts and crafts and creative ideas, is very familiar with the site and regularly used it for buying during the eight years she lived in China. She says that taobao prices are low even compared to prices in China. Nahman says that she recently purchased UGG boots for her daughter for NIS 40, and All Star shoes for NIS 30. For the sake of comparison, UGG boots are sold in Israel for NIS 850-1,200. Nahman even bought Levis jeans that didn't pass the quality control inspection because of a label sewed on upside-down (which was noted on the page for the item ), for NIS 15.

"The site never disappointed me," she says. "The merchandise was excellent. The few times when I received something I didn't order or the item didn't arrive, turning to the store owner solved the problem right away. They return the money immediately." (Taobao comprises many stores belonging to private and wholesale sellers ).

"The great thing about taobao is that you can buy everything there," adds Nahman. "You can find all the fashion brands you can think of - Zara, Mango, H&M, and haute couture brands. But the high-quality items that are not made in China and come from abroad often cost more than they would in Europe. The things that are worth buying there are those from chains that do their manufacturing in China."

How can you know that it's not a fake?

"There's really no way of knowing. In China, even when you buy in the marketplaces the difference between a knockoff and export surplus isn't clear. With the private sellers on taobao these are usually items that failed to pass some kind of quality control inspection, or surplus items. I have never purchased electronic devices there, but it really pays to buy fashion items and children's toys through them. The product comes with all the labels, and is most probably not a knockoff."

How do you solve the problem that they don't send to Israel?

"The most convenient solution is if you know someone who lives in China who can send it. You can also correspond with the sellers - some of them agree to send, and then you do a bank transfer directly to their accounts. The drawback is losing the security provided by Alipay."

Simply addictive

Another option for buying on taobao is through special agents, to whom the merchandise is sent - and they take care of delivering it to Israel for a commission of about 10 percent. The cost of delivery is about $20 per kilogram, but in many cases even after the costs of delivery and the commission, the purchase is still worthwhile. An example of such an agent is taobaotube.com. On this site the stages of buying are explained, and it includes a calculator that enables you to provide the estimated weight of the package and the country to which the items are being sent, and to find the cost of delivery, including the agent's commission.

"If you send a big order it really pays," explains Nahman. "At first it seems complicated and requires a lot of work, but as soon as you do it once or twice and learn how the system works, it becomes simple. In effect, my main word of caution is that the moment you enter taobao, it's simply addictive."

Shelly Peleg, the editor in chief of Fashion Forward, the Mako online fashion magazine, says that she reaches manufacturers from the Far East via eBay. "When you search for fashion on eBay you quickly get to the manufacturers from the Far East who sell the various products at a tenth of the price. Because I have no way of knowing, I assume in advance that it's not the original product, and it doesn't bother me. It's nice as long as it's really cheap, like pantyhose, for example. In Israel those things are really expensive, especially in light of the fact that it's an item you buy again and again. In Hong Kong those things cost only a few dollars."

How to buy on the Asian websites

Reliability: Commerce with China arouses mistrust in light of the fact that the country is identified with imitations and fakes. The choice of stores with excellent feedback from users can help with the filtering. For the most part you can find the rating alongside each seller, and you can see how many people bought from this store, what percentage were satisfied and what percentage were not, and what they didn't like. Read the return policy of the website or the seller - a particularly low price is liable to raise the suspicion that it is not the original.

Payment: It is recommended to purchase via PayPal or Alipay, in order to receive the security provided by this method of payment.

Delivery: Delivery from the Far East tends to take a very long time, as much as three weeks or even a month, especially when you buy small items and the delivery is free of charge.

Sizes: The sizes in the Far East are not necessarily the same as those in the West. We recommend using a calculator for converting the sizes.