Despite their not-quite-stirling reputation, China’s largest fast fashion brand is a stirring global hit. We visited the site to see what’s the appeal
Shein’s TikTok-style photos on their website
If you don’t identify as Gen Z, you might want to give this post a miss. If you do not, but like wearing cheap clothes that appeal to the very younger, our uncovering of an online retail sensation might appeal to you. Just in case you aren’t aware yet (or too shy to ask your daughter), Shein from Nanjing (南京), China is a global phenomenon. According to a Forbes report in February this year, the brand is a “(USD)15 billion fast fashion retailer”. While you are too busy watching which of your fave brands will be conducting a closing-down sale, Shein launched, two months ago, a “hub” on our island, with our own stand-alone website, which means prices quoted are in SGD. In Southeast Asia, Shein is also operating e-shops in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam (Malaysia’s, it is reported, is in the works). Although its expansion into our part of the world looks massive, Shein really made their mark and their sales in the United States, quickly beating American fast fashion brands, such as Forever 21, at their own game, tempting young shoppers with USD5 cropped tops and USD15 dresses (before discounts). Shein truly champions cheap.
But, first, let’s look at the name. It is often heard pronounced as “shine” (it’s not a Yiddish moniker!) or “shayne”, even “sheen”, as spoken by two teenaged girls seated next to us in an MRT train one weekday morning. However, according to fans using TikTok to communicate their #OOTD, it is “she in” (yes, two syllables), presumed by some to be a conflation of the two words, which may have come from “she is in”, but as mainland Chinese speakers of English do drop helping verbs, Shein pronounced as “she in” is unsurprising. However, if we go back to an earlier period, when the company traded as SheInside, perhaps the shortened name, as we know today, is understandable. Unlike many Chinese brands, such as Huawei, Shein the name does not have a Chinese root. Despite grabbing the headlines of major news outlets around the world with its un-Oriental-sounding brand, Shein is relatively unknown in the land where it was born as they only sell to overseas customers. When we spoke to a contact in Shanghai to ask her if she knows of the brand everyone is talking about and buying, she replied, “诗恩吗？没听说过 (shi en? Never heard of it)”. Some Chinese media use the name 希音 (xiyin), although it is unclear if the company is registered in China with that moniker.
You can’t imagine a Chinese brand not connected to technology or smartphones to be this big, but Shein is. Going back to America, hitherto their biggest market, it is reported that in a monthly ranking, the Shein app is downloaded more often than the Amazon app. As TechCrunch reported in May, citing App Annie and SensorTower, in the US, Amazon was beaten by the Chinese company on the Apple App Store on the 11th of that month, and then on Goggle’s Play Store just six days later. Now, it is reported that the Shein app enjoys 230 million downloads globally. In addition, a Similarweb research showed that Shein’s website is the most visited clothing retailer/brand in the world. According to Euromonitor International, the clothier is “the world’s largest online-only fashion company (based on sales of products under their own brand)”. That, by any standard, is a stunning achievement for a 13-year-old Chinese fast fashion label (H&M, at 74, is 61 years older) that first sold their products under the less marketable—and now defunct—website sheinside.com.
Shein bus-stop ad seen in June 2021
After typing the new shein.com in the Google Search bar on our PC, (unsurprisingly) the site’s ad first appeared, looking exactly like a search result. The title read “SHEIN Official Site – Free Shipping – Countless Choices”, telling us immediately what their customers consider important. Surprisingly, “cheap” wasn’t in that order. The snippet followed with “Browse a wide range of Hot Sale Clothes. Big Savings, Limited Time Only. Shop Now! New Trends in Clothes. High Quality, Up to 85% Off. Free Shipping Available! Bonus Point. Quick & Secure Checkout. 100% Quality Guaranteed. Size Guide. Customer Service Focused.” Sure, it isn’t a proper paragraph that David Ogilvy would recommend, but this isn’t written to appeal to an English major. The site links came after, offering quick access to “New Styles For Women”, “Classic Sweatshirts” (they are still in demand?), “Shein’s Hot Deals” (they are always hot) and “Extended Sizes” (inclusive!). The ad, in fact, sat above the top search result for Shein (both with “Sg” in their URL), which, to us, appeared a little too kiasu.
A click on the ad and we were very quickly brought to their homepage. But we didn’t see any of their irresistible clothing immediately. Before the flash animation of the promotional banner could fully load, a trio of coupons popped up, offering three different levels of discounts, based on the total purchase made. When the coupons went away (we don’t remember closing the window), we could see the major temptation—“9.9 pre-sale: up to 80% off”. Surrounding this traditionally-placed value proposition—front and centre—are tabs on all sides except the left, offering more discounts. We scrolled further down, and we still did not see clothes. After the clickable ‘Category’ buttons (24 in all), more sales and promotions were announced and conveniently linked to bring you straight to the cheap stuff. We clicked on “All under S$9.90”. Before long, there was a “Croc Embossed Saddle Bag”, but not that Saddle Bag, for the unbelievable price of S$3.75 (seriously!). We scrolled 20 rows down (still no clothes): nothing came close to S$9.90.
We returned to the homepage and scrolled further down. Finally, some semblance of fashion. But first, they’d tempt you with more markdowns, from 17% off for a palette of eyeshadows to 61% off for a “Lettuce Trim Rib-knit Lounge Top”. Does any shopper buy at full price? We wanted to look at regular-priced merchandise, so we clicked on the links under “#SHEINstyles”. There were two of them: “Dazy” and “Honeyspot”. Since the former sounded like lazy, we skipped that. As it turned out, “Honeyspot” is for the honeypot, or she who thinks herself as one. The first item was a pair of black, sexed-up, wide-legged pants, with the waistband cut in a V-shape to bare the hips. The model picked to wear the trousers was impossibly thin, with a girth of the waist that looked unreal. Was she Photoshoped to look like a reed? We couldn’t tell. There were seven shots of her, looking like screen grabs of TikTok post, with varying degrees of come-hither engagingness. In fact, all the girls (and they are mere girls) looked like they were posing for their boyfriend’s secret photo stash. No picture was alike; each seemingly shot to connect with those who are weaned on Instagram and TikTok—but not Taobao (淘宝).
Shein homepage this week opens with a sale
Despite repeated visits, it is hard to discern the aesthetic strength of the Shein website. First impression is that it looks like an e-store by the people behind Shopee—but a tad more orderly. The impression stays. Shein’s makes Love, Bonito appear like a high-end site (but more conservative), and the Bangkok-based Pomelo’s a luxury platform. There seems to be an endless supply of merchandise; the scrolling almost never comes to an end. Gondolas in physical stores have a bottom, but Shein seems to offer none. On their “New Arrivals” banner, you’re told to “meet your new 1,000+ favourites”. They have such confidence in their offerings and the breadth, even when it is hard to imagine any visitor to have four-figure favourites, all in one stop. But 1,000 is an oft-cited figure. According to numerous news reports, Shein puts out “1,000 new products a day” (sometimes, as it is also often said, staggeringly close to 6,000)! Their releases in a week are believed to match already prolific Zara’s for an entire year. The minute the items go online, A.I. keeps a close watch on shopper behaviour via clicks and the picks in the shopping cart. Demands are quickly forecasted and inventory updated, all in real time. No human hands are required in the processes. In addition, their impressive algorithm is able to make recommendations to those who share similar profiles and purchases as those of earlier visitors. Like on social media, Shein is a community experience.
The massive merchandise output they are able to produce is the result of an advanced and sophisticated supply chain that is thought to rival even its closest competitors’. “Nothing can’t be done in China,” sourcing agents and product development managers are wont to say, even if garment production has shifted to an extent to Southeast Asia. Just for fabrics alone, Shein taps the astounding supplies and varieties from wholesale markets, such as those in Guangzhou (广州) and increasingly in Yiwu (义乌), a city in Zhejiang province (480km away from Shein’s home in Nanjing or five hours by car, and a lot less from their production base in Panyu District [番禺区], Guangzhou). Known as the “wholesale centre of the world”, what Yiwu offers, as one fabric sourcing agent based in Hong Kong told us recently, is “a whole level of crazy. They can customised based on order size. Mind you, the fabrics are of the moment, not from many years ago, not stock lot. They have ideas pumped up to them from everywhere. And they can do effects such as print embroidery as well.”
The core of Shein’s supply chain, in fact, is in fabric production, as well as the sibling businesses of printing and dyeing. According to the brand’s 2018 business plan quoted in the media, this allows Shein to attain “75% direct procurement rates” (values that track all relevant aspects of obtaining or buying goods and services to arrive at an end product), meaning they are able to maintain high standards in aspects such as quality consistency, cost optimisation, and trend correctness. Another Hong Kong production professional told us, “they could be on trend just by buying, for example, fleece or French terry to run throughout the year; they don’t need to think and rethink.” And, famously, shorter garment production cycles too. As industry watchers are always marveling at, Shein’s speed—from production to market—is the crux of their success. While most fast fashion brands take two to three weeks to go from design to finished garment (already considered speedy considering, traditionally, it takes about three months), Shein achieves the same in an impressive five to seven days, hence you, the shopper, during the pandemic or not, are able to constantly “meet your new 1,000+ favourites”. One procurement manager, based in Guangzhou, told us, “for cross-border commerce, in terms of supply chain and online ordering, for examples, China is way ahead of Singapore.”
If you need to see how the clothes look as social media posts, there is a “Style Gallery” for your enjoyment
But Shein did not begin as such a well-oiled clothing powerhouse. Founded in 2008 by a media-wary (“low-key” is often used by the press, and the company he helms “mysterious”) Shandong (山东) native Chris Xu Yangtian (许仰天), Shein’s early merchandise was reportedly sourced from Guangzhou’s famed Shisanhang Wholesale Market (十三行服装批发市场), a popular area in Liwan District (荔湾区), comprising primarily five markets that are known for their “mid- and low-grade products”, as one regular buyer told us. When sales grew dramatically (especially in the US, still their largest market to date), the initial procurement model of just buying to sell was no longer tenable. By 2014, they overhauled their supply chain, even forming their own design team (which is a curious asset when they are known to knock off the output of others), and the rest is laughing to the bank. Shein’s rapid rise and success are all the more fascinating for business watchers as Xu Yangtian was an unknown and did not come from a fashion background and was not thought to be interested in fashion. His company is so unheard in China that a newscaster on China Business Journal (中国经营报) described Shein as “中国最神秘的百亿公司，一家没有百度百科的百亿公司 (China’s most mysterious multi-billion company, a multi-billion company without a Baidu Baike [China’s Wiki] entry)”. Once an SEO specialist, Mr Xu started in clothing retail by selling wedding dresses (also overseas) through another defunct brand. It was reported, that despite his lack of fashion—and, indeed, supply chain—experience, Mr Xu went to Guangzhou in 2014 to set up Shein’s new procurement management and creative team in person.
From the start, price was key to Shein’s success. Ultra-fast fashion went hand-in-hand with ultra-cheap. As our Hong Kong source told us, “you can get fabrics in China for as low as 30 to 50 US cents a metre!” It is, therefore, unsurprising that Shein is able to sell tops for the unbelievable but inviting price of S$6, and dresses for S$10. The pants we mentioned earlier can be had for S$22, but if that’s too much for you, there’s a S$4 off voucher for you to redeem after you “register” with them. (And if that’s still too dear, you may opt to split the bill into three separate payments via the “buy now, pay later” service Atome, interest-free!) At every page, temptations in the form of further discounts seem to lurk, turning maybe-later to why-not-now. It is totally possible to purchase a complete look or even two, including accessories and makeup, for less than S$50. Shein hits the sweet spot that resides between Zara’s higher prices (for Shein’s customers) and H&M’s lower, but not those that necessarily come with product durability. Moreover, unlike the European rivals, the Chinese brand is increasingly operating like a department store. There’s a men’s line, a plus-size collection, lingerie, baby clothes, maternity wear, electronics, home décor, office and home wares, bedding (watch out, Robinsons) and, for good measure, pet supplies.
Although Shein engaged Mercury Marketing and Communications to launch their business here, the fast fashion brand also worked their magic by reaching out to influencers and KOLs. According to online reports, those with a sizeable following could receive free clothes or earn commissions of “between 10% and 20% when maintaining a steady stream of photo and video posts on Instagram, YouTube or TikTok”. Followers of their fave social media stars are also able to enjoy more discounts, with many SG influencers offering “codes” that come with “15% off”. On IG, there are more than 40 hashtags linked to Shein. Our own #sheinsg that started in July has quickly reached 183 posts. If after all these views, you are still not convinced of the clothes’ social media potential, you can visit the website’s IG-esque “Style Gallery”, organised by looks, such as “Summer Time”, “Beach Vibes”, and “Boho Gal”, and seven more. Back to the two lasses we encountered on the MRT train, who were, in fact, looking at the Shein website on one phone and the brand’s IG page on another. We noticed that they kept going back to a S$7 (not discounted) sleeveless, body-con “Draped Neck Butterfly Print Dress”. Unable to contain our curiosity, we asked them if they were in a dilemma. At that price, it seemed odd that they were hesitating. A MacDonald’s Big Mac Extra Value Meal is S$8.65. One of them, giggling, said, “We can’t decide who will buy; we both love it”.
Photo illustration (top): Just So. Product photo and screen grabs: Shein. Others: Chin Boh Kay