The June 11 launch of 11 Main, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba's first foray into the U.S. retail market, set off plenty of speculation about the company's plans to take on Amazon and eBay. But for online bargain hunters, the real question posed by 11 Main isn't which corporation will come out on top. It's, "Should I shop there?"
To find out, I requested an invite (the site is currently invite-only) and pulled out my credit card.
Visually, 11 Main has more in common with crafty marketplace Etsy and flash sale sites like Gilt than the no-nonsense, utilitarian look of Amazon. Rather than sell its own items, the site is a platform for smaller sellers to hawk their wares. 11 Main currently hosts over 1,000 of these sellers, and divvies up their products into categories like fashion, home, tech, toys and jewelry. You can also browse each provider's shop, and “favorite” items, saving them to a separate page.
Since much as been made of the 11 Main vs. Amazon and eBay showdown, I decided to compare the three by shopping for identical product on each site. I selected five different items: a jump rope, iPhone cover, bottle of pet shampoo, set of children's socks, and pair of sunglasses (eclectic enough for you?). In each case, the item is sold not by the big site itself, but by a small seller using 11 Main, Amazon, or eBay as a storefront.
Here's what happened:
On the pure price of the item, Amazon and eBay tied with two winners apiece, leaving 11 Main to bring up the rear.
What really matters to shoppers, though, is the total cost required to get the object of your desire to your doorstep. Now, if you're Joe Shopper, who just wants to log on and pick up one item, you should go directly to eBay, which won (or tied) on price plus shipping, four times out of five.
But who actually pays shipping on Amazon? If you shell out the $99 a year to be a Prime member, or are willing to stock your cart with $35-worth of must-haves, you can drop those nasty shipping charges on many items. Of our five buys, four qualified for Amazon's free shipping (the fifth was mailed directly by the seller, and was therefore ineligible). Once free shipping was factored in, the power dynamic flip-flopped, and Amazon came out on top.
Now for returns. When it comes to shipping back a product from 11 Main, you and the seller are on your own: you communicate via email to hash out the details. You also deal with the seller on eBay, though you message back and forth using the site, rather than directly. Amazon provides the most mediation; the site even sent me a printable mailing label, despite the fact that I was shipping the item directly back to the seller. (The actual return policies for each item vary by seller, no matter which site you use.)
At least in its current form, 11 Main is no match for America's current online retail kingpins. Can you take advantage of Amazon's free shipping options? If so, make the Seattle-based retailer your first click.
Stray notes on 11 Main
- When I logged into 11 Main after making my first purchase, the site had no record of my order.
- If the items you put in your cart are from different sellers, they are treated as entirely separate purchases, and must be bought individually. Never have I been so happy that Autofill exists.
- 11 Main has no product reviews or seller ratings. It's often possible to find them elsewhere online, but adds to your shopping time.