Alibaba's flagship consumer-to-consumer marketplace Taobao, estimated to hold more than 90 per cent of the Chinese market for such transactions, showed off a photo of a black and silver drone with helicopter-like propellers carrying a white box to launch the service.
But the option is confined to just three days and a few areas of three Chinese mega-cities -- the capital Beijing, commercial hub Shanghai and Guangzhou in the south – and applies only to one brand of tea from one particular vendor, with a limit of 450 deliveries in total.
"For consumers... such a cool consumption experience will give them more surprises," Taobao said in a statement on its microblog.
Airspace in China is strictly controlled, with the majority used by the military. The government allows limited use of civil drones for activities ranging from rescue to observation, and operators are required to apply for permission beforehand.
Alibaba said in a statement the logistical arrangements were being handled by courier company YTO Express, which had received the necessary regulatory approvals for the trial service.
In 2013, a Shanghai bakery was forced to scrap plans to deliver cakes by drone after a test flight sparked concerns over public safety and attracted the scrutiny of police, state media have reported.
Regulatory issues have hampered plans by Amazon to offer drone deliveries in the United States.
Company founder Jeff Bezos said last year he hopes to move forward, but added the services could be delayed by red tape as US authorities were still considering proposals for commercial drone use.