What We Should Learn From Shein

Yet another fast fashion Shein-pocalypse has dawned on the world, when the documentary “Untold” premiered last month. In recent years, the company has found itself in the middle of several controversies including trademark disputes, tax evasion, human rights violations, and health and safety concerns. If you’d like to know more about these – refer to the links at the end of this article.

Shein is a Chinese online fast fashion retailer, best known for its affordably priced apparel. In its early stages, Shein was considered more of a drop shipping business, but by 2015 it has transformed into a fully integrated retailer. Based in China and shipping across 220 countries, Shein is the world’s largest fashion retailer. As of 2022, the company is valued at $100 billion.

However, today I want to talk about the things Shein got right – whether on purpose or by accident – that might point the industry towards overpowering this monster of a production.

Variety Over Quality

On an average day, Shein adds 2,000 new items to its store. It means anyone can find something to their taste on this website. And I’m not only talking about style – while this is an important factor (I’m so tired of sustainable brands that make this their whole shtick and only make nude, clean, airy clothes. You’re a saint, WE GET IT!). The more important aspect of it is the fit. Anyone who’s out of the standard 36-42 size range will know how hard it is to find anything that actually fits. Unintentionally, Shein has solved this problem by throwing thousands of clothing pieces at their customers to see what sticks. Shein has no set size range and no base pattern – every item is different, which is a gold mine for shoppers with special size and fit needs.

The Takeaway

Obviously, manufacturing tons of items is not a proper solution to the bigger problem of sizing. There are more sustainable ways to provide the variety the Shein achieves by sheer volume. A great alternative would be clothes made to fit – and an excellent example of this are slo. Slo is a slow fashion jeans company that started with a man buying women’s jeans and discovering that they have barely any pocket space – and evolved into a custom jeans design, reviewed and supported by a huge community, and made to the measurements of every customer. They’re currently finishing their pilot set of orders, which I’m lucky to be a part of – and there’s 100K people on the waitlist for the next window of availability, showing that there is demand for such products. It might be the start of the fashion revolution – so I do think it’s worth keeping an eye on them!

Community Incentives

I have yet to see a retail website that has more useful reviews than Shein. The reason? Shein rewards reviewers with points, which basically means money (100 points = 1$). There are many reasons it might be in Shein’s interest to encourage reviews – pick best performing items to keep, encourage sales, etc. What’s important though is that it is in the consumer’s interest as well. For some it’s to assess the fabric quality (which, as we know, is sub-par at best with Shein). For others, it’s a great tool to assess the fit of the item.

Many items have over a 1000 reviews, some with over 10,000.

As a tall person with a slender body type, many clothes are either too short on me, or assume bigger volume in the cleavage area – seeing pictures of consumers with a body type similar to mine reassures me that not only the size will be right, but I won’t find myself fearing for a nip-slip because the top is just a bit too revealing for my physique.

Reviews include pictures and fit descriptions

Real pictures, real figures, descriptions of wear and feel (it’s basically common courtesy by now to comment whether a white garment is transparent or not) – all it took was some shitty “hit-or-miss” orders and a few cents in incentives, and a community was built that is helping each other not to fall for the “too good to be true” scams that Shein tempts them with.

The Takeaway

Community is everything – and it doesn’t take much to build one. It does require a platform though – and there’s no shortage of frameworks and out-of-the-box solutions that will allow any retailer to implement a similar system on their website.

While we have Etsy for handmade clothes, it does not come close to what we need as a fashion-forward community platform for people interested in ethical and sustainable fashion.

ASOS is a great example of collaboration of many brands – but either because the rewards aren’t that great, or because we kind of… expect things from a name brand to be of a good quality, there aren’t nearly as many reviews there, even taking in account the huge difference in the number of customers. And while quality-wise we don’t expect great heights from either (well… depends on the brand with ASOS), in regard to how the item looks on me, I was disappointed by ASOS a lot more than by Shein. Mostly because I had no way of filtering out things that just don’t look good based off of previous shoppers.

Free Shipping!!!

Not even entirely free – like many other websites free shipping starts from a certain cart price. Shein’s free shipping lower limit seems to be incredibly low compared to other retailers – just about 50$ or so (depending on the country). Not only do they offer free economy shipping starting at a low price – the more you spend, the faster you can get the items for free! Even express shipping is free starting from a certain cart worth (granted, a pretty high one).

The Takeaway

Many companies could account for shipping and return costs when setting item prices, and I’m pretty sure most customers wouldn’t mind an item costing a couple extra bucks just to see that coveted “FREE SHIPPING” on their order. As we all know, the worst feeling when shopping online is getting to the checkout and being hit in the face with additional hidden costs.

Return To Sender

This might vary across different countries, Shein (unlike most other retailers) has a single free return label policy – meaning that you get a single return label for every order placed, and you can return as many items as you want from it – as long as they’re returned as a single package with that label. I find that for most cases this is more than enough – you get the items, you try them on, you return the ones you don’t like. With many other shops I had to give up, donate, or throw away items because returning them would cost as much as the item itself.

Another plus of Shein’s return policy is the efficiency. Last time I tried returning an item to Amazon, I had to jump through hoops, print 3-5 copies of the shipping label, drive to a designated UPS spot (there are very few of them in Israel) that happened to be in some godforsaken gas station, and argue with the poor kid that worked there for him to accept my return because he didn’t even know they could take packages back. With Shein the process was way simpler – pack the item however you like, slap that label on it, and drop it off at your nearest post office.

The Takeaway

Service is part of a brand’s marketing strategy. If the service is cumbersome to deal with, or costs more than it’s worth – it’s not going to be used. People are more likely to buy if they know they can change their mind. Most people are too lazy to return an item no matter how easy it is, so there’s barely any loss to the company if the returns are free – but if a customer tries it once and has a negative experience, they will not buy again.

And if you’re wondering – yes, I do still shop at Amazon, but only for things that I’m certain I won’t be needing to return (which means… much less than I could’ve).

Living Proof

This all sounds great, but is it even realistic? Allow me to introduce a candidate from another field: IKEA. While far from perfect, IKEA is still a good example of combining “fast” with “sustainable”. IKEA’s environmental initiatives include:

While all huge retail companies could “do better, be better”, this is a great example of how sustainability efforts look, and that it is possible without much loss in revenue. In fact, some initiatives are win-win-win, for example IKEA’s flat packaging – cheaper and more convenient for the customer, while also allowing to transport more products at once and waste less materials, which benefits both the company and the planet.

In Conclusion

Shein is a giant monster that has taken the fast fashion world by storm – mainly thanks to its low prices and endless trend chasing. It is to be held accountable for all the inhumane, dangerous, and harmful practices it employs to stay at the top. But for any chance at dethroning this tyrant, we have to analyze what makes it work (and as we can see, it’s not just the price), and build up sustainable competitors that will start taking out chunks of Shein’s business. For now, this seems to be a safer bet than convincing the Chinese corporation to change its ways.

Video Recommendations

Here are a few videos from various YouTube creators that I found very educational on the Shein story:

tiktok is kind of bad for fashion – a great video essay by Mina Le that discusses how TikTok and Shein impacted fashion in this day and age. This is not even about the atrocities Shein commits, but how it affects the very industry that gave birth to it.

How Shein Took Over Our Closets & Social Media Feeds – this episode by The Financial Diet discusses Shein’s business model and how it evolved fast fashion to a whole different level.

Shein: When Public Image No Longer Matters – in this episode of the Corporate Casket by illuminaughtii they talk about how Shein shamelessly steals designs from artists that publish their work online, among other sins of this beast.

SHEIN or she OUTzoeunlimited beautifully covers all the major issues with the clothing company, including design, labor, environment, and fashion.

We Need To Talk About The Latest SHEIN Scandal – this is the latest video I have watched on this topic, by the all known meme mother Karolina Żebrowska. She references a lot of the documentary I mentioned above, so it’s also great if you don’t want to watch the whole thing.

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