Shein and Faster Fashion's Emergence

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 12/21/2021 01:19:00 PM

Much has already been written about the emergence of "fast fashion": clothing retailers that are able to translate trends seen on the world's fashion runways... to a store near you in a matter of weeks. The success stories of Sweden's H&M and Spain's Mango have become the stuff of business legend in upending the fashion industry in recent decades. It was probably only a matter of time that onetime suppliers in China would become the firms at the cutting edge of evolving to customer's whims and desires that move so quickly. 

Younger women should be familiar with China-based online retailer Shein. Reflecting the democratization of fashion brought by the online world, it's not the big fashion houses that set today's trends but rather posts on the likes of Instagram and Pinterest. In keeping with the times, Shein is almost entirely an Internet selling pure play instead of having bricks-and-mortar stores still like H&M or Zara. Rest of the World writes more about this emerging business success story:

Shein eventually expanded to offer apparel for women, men, and children, as well as everything from home goods to pet supplies, but its core business remains selling clothes targeted at women in their teens and 20s — a generation who grew up exploring their personal style on platforms like Instagram and Pinterest. 

Its clothes aren’t intended for Chinese customers, but are destined for export. In May, the company became the most popular shopping app in the U.S. on both Android and iOS, and, the same month, topped the iOS rankings in over 50 other countries. It’s the second most popular fashion website worldwide.

By 2020, Shein’s sales had risen to $10 billion, a 250% jump from the year before, according to Bloomberg. In June, the company accounted for 28% of all fast fashion sales in the U.S. — almost as much as both H&M and Zara combined. The same month, a report circulated that Shein was worth over $47 billion, making it one of the tech industry’s most valuable private startups.

Think of Shein more as an Amazon-a-like instead of comparing it to the established fast fashion names in terms of its business model:

At the heart of these issues is Shein’s aggressive business model. Comparisons to fast-fashion giants like H&M miss the point: it’s more like Amazon, operating a sprawling online marketplace that brings together around 6,000 Chinese clothing factories. It unites them with proprietary internal management software that collects near-instant feedback about which items are hits or misses, allowing Shein to order new inventory virtually on demand. Designs are commissioned through the software; some original, others picked from the factories’ existing products. A polished advertising operation is layered over the top, run from Shein’s head offices in Guangzhou.

Ethical concerns with work conditions in Chinese garment factories aside, Shein's advantage is being able to call on PRC suppliers to shift even more quickly than European fast fashion firms:

For years, European brands like Zara and H&M have embodied fast fashion, shortening the route from runway to storefront from months to weeks. But Shein isn’t chasing runway trends — rather, it often knocks off items seen on TikTok and Instagram, where hype cycles move significantly faster. Whereas Zara typically asks manufacturers to turn around minimum orders of 2,000 items in 30 days, Shein asks for as few as 100 products in as little as 10 days. “They want factories to be much more nimble,” said Lu.

If speed is Shein's competitive advantage, it must adapt to even quicker cycles going forward. Or, will someone even speedier supplant Shein just as it has H&M and Zara (which outran department stores before them)? Something else I thought the article could have shed more light on is how Shein is working around supply chain snags like the US-China trade war, intermittent COVID-19 lockdowns in the PRC, and rising shipping costs.