The Amazon-ification of fast-fashion giant Shein

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E-commerce giant Shein is spreading its arms to envelope more than just the fashion and apparel for which it’s known—and it’s starting to look like another familiar online market platform in the process.

Shein is wooing brands such as household goods conglomerate Colgate-Palmolive, toy maker Hasbro, and skincare brands to sell their products in its marketplace, Reuters reported Tuesday. The company, known for affordable and stylish clothes—albeit made with concerns about labor practices and its environmental impact—is taking steps to create a platform that is everything to everyone.

“Everybody associates Shein with fashion, but we are doing all verticals,” Christina Fontana, Shein’s senior director of brand operations for Europe, Middle East and Africa, said at a Paris conference on April 17, according to Reuters.

“Our consumers want brands, [so] if that’s what they’re looking for, that’s what we’re going to give them,” she added.

Shein’s outward expansion is a clear tactic to take a bigger piece of the e-commerce pie, Steve Tadelis, economic analysis and policy professor at the University of California at Berkeley, told Fortune

Shein has the largest fast-fashion market share in the U.S, and its annual profit doubled to $2 billion in 2023 from the year before. It’s eyeing an IPO and a whopping $90 billion valuation. While the size of its retail empire still pales in comparison to Amazon’s stranglehold on 38% of the U.S. e-commerce market, Tadelis said Shein will want to go after the industry leader. 

“It shouldn’t be surprising that with all of the regulators around the world and talking about the Amazon monopoly that needs to be reined in, well, Shein is now taking a bite out of their apple and will probably take more of those bites,” he said.

Shein’s big wins

Shein, a China-based fast-fashion platform founded by billionaire Sky Xu in 2008, has skyrocketed to success and 45 million monthly users through its massive and efficient production and distribution strategies.

Using AI and electronic monitoring, Shein is able to identify online trends, turn to its suppliers to manufacture small batches of products, then take initial sales data to decide to mass produce a product. The system nearly guarantees the company has its finger on the pulse of trends and can deliver goods fast, though it’s gotten into hot water over allegations of copyright infringement and data scraping, as well as the proliferation of counterfeit product listings.

Even as regulatory bodies, like the European Union’s European Commission, have tried to put checks and balances on the company to stymie its questionable business practices, Shein may have found a way around that. 

John Deighton, professor emeritus at the Harvard Business School, told Fortune that Shein’s strategy of incorporating more brand names onto its platform will only help the company dodge increased attention: The site could soon be flooded with thousands of listings from familiar and trusted products, such as Colgate toothpaste and Play-Doh, essentially telling regulatory bodies there’s nothing to see here.

“They won’t get caught up by the scrutiny,” Deighton said.

Butting heads with Amazon

Shein’s behind-the-scenes methodology makes expanding beyond fashion a natural next step, Tadelis argued. With an efficient infrastructure in place, Shein is able to be more nimble in expanding outward from apparel.

“I really think this is a smart business decision of saying, ‘We have an amazing logistics network, let’s start expanding it into other areas where we could procure cheap products,’” he added.

Rui Ma, tech analyst and COO of market research platform AlphaWatch.AI, told Fortune that Shein’s secure spot in apparel offers another advantage in its race to beat Amazon. Fashion is a notoriously finicky sector, and Amazon, despite dipping its toe into the world of apparel, hasn’t been able to see the same success as Shein, Ma said.

“It’s been very—historically—very difficult to match up demand supply,” she said. “It’s not been a particularly easy category.”

But as Shein takes pages out of Amazon’s playbook, Amazon is simultaneously doing the same to Shein. Amazon announced last December it would slash seller fees from 17% to 5% for apparel under $15, with apparel between $15 to $20 triggering a 10% fee, starting in January. The company said on Monday its packages are getting delivered faster than ever: 60% of orders placed in 60 major U.S. cities arrived the same day or day after the order was placed. According to the company, that’s part of its longstanding efforts to stay on top of the e-commerce market and tend to customer needs. Shein customers may have to wait 14 days for their orders to arrive.

Tadelis believes this is par for the course. Just as in most markets, company philosophies start to converge on each other when one finds an effective formula.

“There’s no surprise that these things are looking more alike,” he said. “Because once there’s a good, winning strategy … then you’re going to see imitators.”

For the consumer, there will certainly appear to be copycatting and similarities in promotions and perks across e-commerce platforms. But Ma said, don’t be fooled by Shein’s bid to mime its competitors. The site might start to look a lot like Amazon in its offerings, but behind the scenes, it’s very much sticking with its unique logistics network.

“It might feel the same to us as consumers. It’s going to become more of an everything store,” she told Fortune. “But how it builds that experience, I think the logic is very different from Amazon.”

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