May 25, 2024


Fashion Your personal

Beware high shipping costs, a lack of information and fake testimonials

For a long time, I thought I was Mark Zuckerberg’s bête noire: impervious to online advertising. That was until I saw a post on Instagram claiming to have found the world’s comfiest bra. “No digging, no bulging, no stress!”

The post came with a sped-up video in which gorgeous women lived, laughed and loved in soft, malleable bras that looked divine. Ladies, you know what a holy grail this would be. In an instant, I was Veruca Salt, quietly muttering: “I want it NOW.”

But when I clicked on the link to purchase, I realised something was off. High shipping costs, no information about how the bra was made or where it came from, obviously fake testimonials…

Sure enough, I did some online sleuthing and found disgruntled customers for whom the miracle bra was more like a mirage – cheap schmutter that took months to arrive, if it ever arrived at all.

This was my first-ever brush with drop shipping, a global phenomenon that’s barely known to anyone aged over 50 yet is becoming one of the most popular (and controversial) ways to buy and sell online. Drop shipping is an age-old retail concept, referring to how mail order firms, high street shops and online stores ship items from wholesale suppliers so they can fulfil orders.

But it has been transformed through globalisation and the internet into a ubiquitous “side hustle”, ie an extra income stream, thanks to ecommerce platforms such as Shopify, Wix and AliExpress. These sites allow you, Joe or Joanna Bloggs, to easily establish an online shop and sell cheap goods (often manufactured in China) without ever having to handle them yourself.

It seems like a savvy, efficient business model, and social media is awash with influencers claiming to earn six figures a year from drop shipping. Once you know about it, you’ll see it everywhere online, usually in the form of clickbait videos that are engineered to go viral so their promoters can avoid paying for adverts.

It turns out ad-resistant customers like me are not Facebook’s worst nightmare. It’s the creators of popular meme-humour accounts and the unscrupulous drop shippers who buy them out, so they can pollute followers’ timelines with free, disguised adverts for all kinds of tat.

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The supposed miracle bra is one of the more conventional products on offer. You can get a burrito blanket, toilet roll with Donald Trump’s face on it and endless little gadgets you never knew you needed, the modern equivalent of the Innovations catalogue that came through the letterbox in the 1980s and 1990s, hawking laughable inventions you might use once before chucking them in the tech graveyard.

Drop shipping is hollow and environmentally destructive consumerism that adds little value to the economy. Many drop shippers manipulate social media’s algorithms to great effect, using intrusive data tracking and video-bombing to pull trade away from genuine SMEs, all so they can sell products that aren’t what they seem or don’t exist. Customer service is usually appalling or nonexistent.

As for those influencers who seem to be living the drop shipping dream? One independent analysis of the drop shipping platform Shopify in 2018 found 80 per cent of sellers lose money, while 84 per cent of Shopify-hosted websites have no traffic at all. Plus, you need upfront cash to start an online store and go through the trial and error process to find the right products to draw that fickle online market, with no guarantee you will make it back.

I can see why drop shipping appeals at a time when going to university and getting a job no longer leads to automatic financial security.

In his recent book on the influencer economy, Get Rich or Lie Trying, the writer Symeon Brown interestingly argues that the Thatcher-Blair legacy (aided by Silicon Valley) is one where online hustling and a “fake it till you make it” approach now generate the greatest financial rewards (at least for some) but also incentivise fraud, exploitation and the erosion of our self-respect.

Drop shipping is on a grim continuum with multilevel marketing cons, influencer hucksterism and the “emperor’s new clothes” vibe surrounding cryptocurrency. Sometimes, it feels like our generation will be forever stuck in an abusive relationship with online commerce and enterprise, which promise far more than they can ever deliver.

But if the cost of living crisis increases the allure of drop shipping for hustlers, it’s a different story for hard-pressed consumers. Now that inflation is back and supply chains are faltering, those little “oh, go on then” purchases on social media will be the first to go, right?

That is, if our generation can train ourselves out of them. Drop shipping – and the pointless, parasitic business practices it encourages – will only
thrive as long as enough young social media users are prepared to go along with it all. Meanwhile, my search for the perfect bra continues. I just won’t be looking
on Instagram…

Iona Bain is the founder of Young Money blog and author of Own It!