About a year ago, I imported a couple dozen bottles of inks from China. When purchased directly in China, it turns out that PenBBS inks cost only a few dollars per bottle, and there were a variety of others that I also found interesting, so I thought it would be worth a shot. Unsurprisingly, I ran into some problems. In the end, I paid only slightly less for the ink than I would have if I had ordered it from a dealer in the USA, but I had fun, and I think that I could do better next time.
After posting the video above, I’ve had several questions about how to import inks like this, so I thought I’d give you a more detailed explanation here.
How I Imported My Inks (Not Recommended)
First of all, if you want to order inks from China you should familiarize yourself with TaoBao.com, also reachable at TMall.com. This website is the domestic Chinese version of AliExpress, but prices are more in line with what Chinese citizens would expect to pay for things. I found the PenBBS Flagship Store there and was excited to discover that their inks were so inexpensive. Their pens, on the other hand, are not significantly cheaper than when purchased via Etsy. I recommend browsing with Chrome and letting Chrome auto-translate it to English or whatever your native language happens to be.
I quickly discovered, though, that I couldn’t get TaoBao to ship directly to the USA, even though they did accept my USA address at checkout. I watched a couple of YouTube videos and discovered that most people use an intermediary shipping agent, and the most popular one at the time seemed to be TaoBaoFocus (now called ParcelUP).
ParcelUP has its own English Language interface for Taobao. You add the items to your cart, pay for them via ParcelUP’s checkout, and they’re shipped to ParcelUP’s warehouse. There, ParcelUP will hold and then re-package your orders (they may come from different locations/merchants on Taobao), then weight them and give you a shipping quote to your international location.
This was my first mistake.
I originally contacted TaoBaoFocus to get a quote on shipping for my ink to the USA, estimating the weight of the ink and packing materials based on my ink collection at home and the weights listed on Taobao. The estimate was something like $80 to ship to the USA. Considering the number of bottles of ink that I was buying, that was acceptable.
When my ink arrived at the ParcelUP warehouse, though, they gave me a quote of about $250 to ship to the USA, even though the size and weight was as expected. They claimed that the extra charge was because of the fact that it was liquid, which necessitated using a different shipping method (even though I had already explained that it was going to be liquid).
Rather than paying them anything else, I had them forward my package to another shipping agent.
This is the part that worked out nicely. I went to the Alibaba website (not AliExpress) and searched for shippers who advertised shipping liquids to the USA. Then there was the matter of choosing one that didn’t have a minimum shipping weight (most of them are freight shippers). There were lots of choices, but I went with Shenzhen Yucheng International Transport, and they were great. They gave me a quote of about $120 via UPS, I believe.
So, with ParcelUP’s fees, my transfer shipping fees, along with my final shipping fees, I didn’t save a ton.
If I Were To Do It Again…
Of course, I’d cut out the middle man. Once you’re familiar with Taobao, it’s not any harder to browse than AliExpress, assuming that you are using Chrome’s translations (or you read Chinese).
For most of the merchants on Taobao, domestic shipping is free, so getting your order to a shipping agent doesn’t increase your overall costs.
If I were to do this again, I’d estimate the size and weight of my order, contact a shipping agent like the one that I finally used and ask them for an address to ship an order, and ask them for a shipping quote. Check around and find the best deal, and don’t be afraid to haggle.