To be honest, I have been missing the experience of online shopping in China since I moved to the US four years ago. I grew up in China at a time when Taobao, a popular e-commerce platform, became the center of everyday life. Whatever ordinary, luxury, niche or handicrafts you want, you can always find them online on Taobao and at a lower price than regular stores. This is truly a place of abundance.
So when I noticed that Shein had become mainstream in the US over the past few years, I thought: Large! I finally have a Taobao replacement! But somewhere along the way, I started to wonder why I like this particular type of shopping, and also what it means for an e-commerce platform to offer endless offers.
Summer before moving in 2018 I made a purchase on Taobao: five phone cases. I bought them precisely because I heard that small things like phone cases cost a lot more on the other side of the Pacific.
I wasn’t wrong. I paid roughly $15 including 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 difficult for me to say goodbye to Taobao. (There’s an international version called AliExpress, but it’s much harder to use.) The next year, I even asked a friend from China to use her precious luggage space to bring me five more phone cases, also from Taobao. But I’ve had to come to terms with the new reality of online shopping in the US: things are more expensive, there aren’t many options, and everything takes longer to ship.
Taobao is just one of a handful of creations by Chinese e-commerce giants such as Alibaba, JD and Pinduoduo that have learned to combine the country’s traditional advantage of low manufacturing and transportation costs with a rapid pace of technical innovation in mobile payments, recommender algorithms, and targeted marketing. As a result, e-commerce has become a multi-trillion dollar market led by China and one of the few technology industries in the world in which China is leading innovation. For years, people have wondered if the US will ever catch up.
Shein then came into the public eye and turned things around again. Shein, founded in China in 2008, has become incredibly popular far beyond the borders of the country, its value is estimated at about $ 100 billion. Young people on almost every continent are inspired by TikTok and YouTube influencers who are doing “Shane’s hauls” – buying dozens of clothes and other items in one go and dumping them all on the bed before trying them on for the camera, one by one. The sheer contrast between a high pile of clothes and a low overall price makes for a great social media spectacle.