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By Kristen Bahler
April 6, 2021
Two ladies standing in front of Shein sign, surrounded by cheap dollar store sticker and dollar bills.
Money; Getty Images

Shortly before Christmas, the clothing e-tailer SHEIN.com listed 41 women’s tops for less than $3, 57 pairs of pants for less than $7, and 2,596 dresses for less than $10.

This was after the site’s massive Black Friday sale, where shoppers could score up to 80% off most of its inventory, but before its President’s day blowout, where everything was also up to 80% off.

The thing about SHEIN is that pretty much everything is on sale, pretty much all the time. Even when the site isn’t having a massive blowout event (rare) first-time shoppers are treated to an automatic discount of 10% to 20% off. Repeat customers get 15% if they download SHEIN’s mobile app, and can cash in “SHEIN points”— rewards doled out for purchases and on-site product reviews — for additional markdowns.

If you’re not among the Extremely Online, this may be the first time you’ve heard of SHEIN. But don’t mistake that for irrelevancy: In addition to being one of the cheapest places to buy women’s clothes on the internet, it’s quickly becoming one of the most popular.

The brand has close to 19 million Instagram followers as of this writing — beating household fast fashion names like Forever21 (15 million) and ASOS (11 million) by a landslide. And while the privately-owned company doesn’t disclose revenue, Forbes puts SHEIN’S valuation at $15 billion, more than those other two brands combined.

As the price tag on those $2 sandals indicates, this isn’t haute couture. And so, buried beneath a flood of influencer marketing and paid social media posts celebrating the brand is a smattering of people enthusiastically dunking on it.

On YouTube, dozens of SHEIN shoppers complain about clothes arriving in various states of disrepair: torn, discolored, and sometimes — no joke — smelly. In one video, a woman tries on a plus-size shirt that’s so ill-fitting she has to cut herself out of it; another opens her just-delivered SHEIN package to find the “pocket tee” she ordered doesn’t actually have a pocket.

TikTok is another goldmine for SHEIN fails: A recent viral video shows a Gen Z-er tossing a SHEIN bikini in a bathroom sink, instantly turning the water the same shade of bright pink as her new swimsuit.

Oddly, none of this seems to be deterring young shoppers from stuffing their closets with SHEIN clothes. In September 2020, SHEIN’S mobile app was the 2nd most-downloaded shopping app in the world, according to the market intelligence site Stock Apps. Only Amazon edged it out.

Is this the most audacious grift on the internet? Or has SHEIN figured out how to make dollar store fashion the most lucrative industry around?

Let’s back up a bit.

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SHEIN was founded in Nanjing, China in 2008. Launched as SheInside, the company rebranded in 2015 and in recent years, has branched beyond women’s clothes to men’s and children’s apparel, accessories, homewares, and a rotating inventory of merchandise that currently includes a $1 “disposable ear piercing tool” and 20 different types of dog pajamas.

For all its popularity, little is known about what makes SHEIN hum. The company doesn’t talk to the press (Money, for it’s part, sent multiple, unreturned requests for comment), so outside of reports that it was launched by an American-born CEO named Chris Xu, details about SHEIN’S operations chain, founding principles and labor conditions are shrouded in mystery.

SHEIN also doesn’t disclose demographic information about its customer base, but everything from its hype-beast adjacent models to the millions of women who’ve shared photos of themselves donning SHEIN apparel across social media make it clear that the brand has masterfully captured the Instagram crowd.

It’s easy to see the appeal: If you’re an influencer, a wannabe influencer, or just a young person who wants to keep her social media feeds #fresh, SHEIN lets you rotate outfits for the cost of a green juice. You don’t need these clothes to last much longer than it takes to snap one good picture in them, so it doesn’t really matter if they’re not perfectly tailored to your body, or won’t survive more than one laundry cycle.

“I love that I can spend $10 on a shirt and maybe only wear it once or twice and not feel guilty," says Breanne Tomolonis, a 24-year-old hairstylist and blogger in Wheeling, W.V.

Tomolonis has about 41,000 Instagram followers; not too shabby for a non-famous twenty-something. She frequently posts about being a newlywed, home improvement projects and the clothes she wears — and SHEIN outfits make a regular appearance (like many bloggers, Tomolonis makes small commissions through the recommendations company RewardStyle, parent of the uber-popular LIKEtoKNOW.it app that’s on basically every influencer’s Instagram page these days).

“Every once in a while something might be cheaply made,” Tomolinis admits. But the clothes are cute: the same fashions you’d find in stores like Zara and Urban Outfitters for four or five times less than what those brands charge. And since SHEIN offers free returns, so she’s got no qualms with snagging impulse buys at a fraction of the cost of a typical shopping trip and sending back items that don’t meet her expectations.

Emily Hernadez, a 25-year old contracts assistant at a publishing company in the Bronx, New York, is another SHEIN devotee.

An up and coming lifestyle blogger, who says she’s “constantly taking pictures on Instagram to get herself out there,” Hernandez needs a rotating wardrobe of budget-friendly clothes to feed the algorithm.

“[SHEIN] is a go-to if I’m ever looking for anything,” she says. “PJs, a cute dress, a nice outfit. I really like the brand. It doesn’t feel super high-end or anything. But it hasn’t really steered me wrong.”

SHEIN’s inventory turns over at an incredible pace — somewhere between 500 and 2,000 new SKUs a day, according to various reports — and in addition to a load of dirt-cheap clothes, includes everything a budding content creator could dream of. (Bath bombs, press-on nails, that plastic, decorative ivy that’s all over TikTok.) Buying from the site might be a crapshoot, but for every SHEIN customer who bought a swimsuit that can’t actually get wet, a dozen others got exactly what they wanted.

Still, not all shoppers are as realistic in their expectations as Hernandez and Tomolonis — or as satisfied with the “you get what you pay for” mantra they’ve adopted.

On the online review site TrustPilot, 48% of 20,000-plus reviews rank SHEIN as either “poor” or “bad.” Zachary Pardes, TrustPilot’s director of brand marketing, says these negative reviews have much in common: Customers opine that shipping takes forever, and when packages do arrive, the clothes are often the wrong size, color, or “something they didn’t even order,” he says.

The positive reviews have some common denominators too.

Over the last seven years, audits of TrustPilot’s SHEIN reviews, guided by digital clues like IP addresses, led Pardes and his team to conclude that many of the company’s five-star reviews came from SHEIN employees themselves. TrustPilot has sent SHEIN multiple cease and desist orders telling them to knock it off, Pardes says, and even added a consumer alert on SHEIN’s TrustPilot landing page telling readers to take what it reads there with a grain of salt.

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Not every SHEIN review is a deep fake. The company does have some verified positive reviews — written by real customers — from shoppers who are “very aware of what they’re purchasing,” according to Pardes.

“They know they’re going to get a few uses out of it, and then it’s going to get thrown away,” he says. “They seem to be genuinely content that the clothing is so cheap.”

It’s hard to fault them for that. Cheap, ethically questionable fashion has long driven American shoppers to brick-and-mortar stores like Forever21, Payless and Claire’s. Like many harbingers of the '90s and early 2000s, those mall staples are all bankrupt now; in some ways, SHEIN has stepped in to fill the void. Where those other brands failed at indulging social media natives, SHEIN is teaching a masterclass in it.

There’s another trend working in SHEIN’s favor, too — as bound to this moment in time as cubic zirconia prom tiaras are to the Claire’s generation. Remember, SHEIN targets Instagrammers — a group largely made up of teenagers and 20-somethings who, even before the pandemic, had less money to spend than older generations did at the same age. COVID-19 dealt another blow to their buying power: A quarter of workers ages 16 to 24 were unemployed in spring 2020; twice as much as older workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).

For others—like the growing community of millennial and Gen Z women who are trying their hand at influencer careers—their livelihood is now built around the same platform that powers SHEIN.

“I’m constantly buying new stuff,” says Christa Jenelle, a 28-year-old in New Jersey who studied studio art and graphic design in college, and now spends her days modeling lingerie and dresses on Instagram.

Jenelle gets free clothes from some of the retailers she partners with, but not enough to supply a new outfit for every near-daily pic she has to upload to appease the algorithm. “Which is why I mostly shop at SHEIN right now,” she says.

Overall, Jenelle says, she’s had good experiences with the brand. She’s busted a few pieces of SHEIN jewelry, and once bought a blazer that was as flimsy as a t-shirt, but in general, the quality of the items are comparable to stores like Forever21, Rainbow, or “anywhere you’d buy a dress for $10,” she says.

Besides, she adds, “The price point is amazing.”

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