Why my bittersweet relationship with Shein had to end
To be honest, I miss the online shopping experience in China since I moved to the US four years ago. I grew up in China at the same time as Taobao, a popular e-commerce platform, inserted itself into the center of daily life. No matter what mainstream, luxury, niche, or craft products you want, you can always find them online on Taobao, and at a cheaper price than in physical stores. This is truly the place of abundance.
So when I noticed Shein becoming mainstream in the United States over the past few years, I thought, Awesome! I finally have a Taobao replacement! But somewhere along the way, I started to wonder why I value this particular type of shopping experience, and also what it means for an e-commerce platform to offer endless offers.
The summer before my move, in 2018, I made a purchase on Taobao: five phone cases. I bought these precisely because I heard that small things like phone cases were much more expensive across the Pacific.
I wasn’t wrong. I paid about $15 in total, and that included shipping from four different sellers. If I bought them in the US, I could easily spend $50, if not more, on the same thing.
After that, it was hard for me to say goodbye to Taobao. (There’s an international version called AliExpress, but it’s much harder to use.) The following year, I even asked a friend traveling from China to use her precious luggage space to bring me five more cases. phone, also from Taobao. But I had to come to terms with the new reality of online shopping in the US: things are more expensive, there aren’t as many options, and it takes longer to ship everything.
Taobao is just one of the few creations of Chinese e-commerce giants like Alibaba, JD, and Pinduoduo that have learned to combine the country’s traditional advantage of low manufacturing and transportation costs with the rapid pace of innovation. technology in mobile payment, recommendation algorithms, and targeted marketing. As a result, e-commerce has become a multi-trillion dollar market led by China and one of the few tech industries in the world in which China has spearheaded innovation. For years people wondered if the United States would ever catch up.
Then Shein caught the public eye and changed things up again. Founded in China in 2008, Shein has become incredibly popular far beyond the country’s borders, with a valuation of around $100 billion. Young people on almost every continent are inspired by TikTok and YouTube influencers who do “Shein hauls” – buy dozens of clothes and other items at once and throw everything on the bed before trying them on for the camera, one by one. The contrast between the tall pile of clothes and the low total price makes it a great sight on social media.
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