The real cost of that cheap thing you bought from a Facebook ad

By purchasing an inexpensive ring, Shanti Mathias found herself in the business of dropshipping, a model based on social media ads, instant digital storefronts, and opaque global supply chains. What was she really buying? And who benefited from it? She’s exploring for IRL.

I had seen advertisements for the ring for weeks on Facebook. The images were beautiful and interesting, with strange tentacles wrapped around the model’s fingers. The ring was free, the ad said, but the sale would end soon. Eventually, I clicked on the picture and paid for the shipping, and imagined becoming the kind of person who wore intriguing rings.

Two months later, the ring arrived in white bubble wrap, the packing slip mostly in Chinese, without the branding of the store I bought it from. It looked nothing like the octopus it was meant to be, with the marks on the tentacles off-center, disappearing when I rubbed them and leaving a stain on my thumb. When I put it on, my skin was itchy. Online, other customer reviews shared my feeling that the products were somehow (but not really) the same as the pictures, the brand wasn’t exactly the small business it looked like. to have.

The ring I bought was probably dropshipping. Dropshipping is a business model where people sell goods through an online storefront without a physical location or warehouse. When you order a product from a dropshipper, the dropshipper does not manage or interact with your item at any time; instead, they forward your order to an ultra-cheap retailer / wholesaler such as AliExpress Where Shein, who processes your order and ships the item to you.

Dropshipping and the digital advertising industry go hand in hand. Searching for “dropshipping” on YouTube or any search engine will bring up a plethora of websites and articles promising to teach you – yes, you! – how to start your dropshipping business and get rich almost instantly.

On platforms like Shopify, it’s a few minutes’ work to set up a dropshipping business. (Photo illustration by Rafael Henrique / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

There is an appeal to this ease of access. Use of the platform Shopify, it is the work of a few minutes to set up a website, with the Oberlo plug-in allowing users to directly import and re-price items from AliExpress and put them on sale. Dropshippers can also list items on marketplace platforms like TradeMe, Amazon, or eBay.

It is marketing that allows dropshippers to sell cheap things at inflated prices. The ring I bought was on a website selling other original jewelry like this, for $ 5-15 each. On AliExpress I can find a similar ring for less than a dollar. Giving something away for free for customers to buy more items is a marketing technique that dropshippers are encouraged to use, as artist Jenny Odell discovered. in his investigation a free watch someone brought to the Capitalism Museum.

With a mix of stock images, Photoshop editing, and adjustments to Shopify website templates, dropshippers are creating a brand that makes it seem like what they are selling is worth more than the lowest prices on AliExpress. or other cheap wholesalers. Dropshippers are encouraged to find a niche so that they can target social media users by topic, using advertising tools. When I looked at the Facebook ad topics tagged me, I found out that I had been marked as interested in “water” which may be the reason why the dropshipping store targeted me with products related to the ocean. Other users could be chosen for their alleged interests handmade clothes or auto repair.

ASpending is one of the main expenses for those who have dropshipping businesses. Otherwise, there is little initial capital required other than the cost of registering a website; by not owning any product themselves, dropshippers can start a business with less than a hundred dollars.

Those who dropshipping are almost always opaque about their business model, but the system isn’t necessarily a scam. After all, people usually get the item they paid for, even if the quality isn’t what they expected. In New Zealand, dropshipping is legal – it’s even allowed on Swap me – although sellers must be registered for a New Zealand business number.

Dropshipping involves global supply chains that amaze you with their opacity. (Image via Getty)

The appeal of dropshipping is the ease of starting a website from a template, with little to no capital required. But that means the model is easy to replicate. There is no shortage of inexpensive products available on the Internet. Therefore, to effectively sell cheap products requires expertise in branding, marketing and customer service.

However, while exact statistics are difficult to come by, many find this drop shipping does not offer instant riches which are often promised.

Those who claim to have made thousands of dollars from dropshipping, including New Zealander, are often reluctant to demonstrate concrete proof of their income. As reporter Sirin Kale documents, the most successful dropshippers tend to abandon their businesses, claiming there is no long-term future in the model, and instead sell expensive courses promising to teach others their secrets.

When I held my ring, not at all what I had thought it was going to be, resolved in its cheapness, I was at the end of a globalized supply chain astonishing in its opacity. I wasn’t sure if the person behind the store I bought it from was in New Zealand or Nepal; the packaging looked Chinese, but it could have been shipped from a warehouse rather than a factory. Jenny Odell points this out in her digital museum exhibit: dropshipping products are symptoms of a system that creates cheap things, then clears the connections between the manufacturer and the end consumer.

Of course, much of contemporary retailing relies on streamlined and fuzzy supply chains. In recent years, street retailers have come under increasing scrutiny over their supply, including calls for a modern slavery law in Aotearoa to make companies transparent about the work that produces what they sell. The third-party execution model used by dropshippers existed before the Internet, too, with mail order catalogs and the use of warehouses. Whether shipped direct or sold through a traditional retailer, items made in places with low labor and environmental regulations are cheap because the consumer does not bear the cost. , but someone does.

With Dropshipping Products As With So Many Others, That Seems Too Cheap To Be True is probably. I finally threw away my free ring, which quickly tarnished upon encountering my bread-kneading lifestyle. Now I know what to watch out for the next time I click an ad that follows me on social media: stock image branding, no clear person running the business, products that can be found on AliExpress with a reverse image search, “sales” that never go away, and reviews that mention long delivery times and disappointing product quality.

I searched for the store where I bought my ring the other day and found that it was missing except for a few angry reviews on third party websites. Did the person behind it stop selling to start a dropshipping course, or spend thousands of dollars marketing cheap jewelry and only got a few hundred sales?

The dropshipping model is generally not good for customers, who receive cheap products at premium prices with little customer service if something goes wrong. It is also not good for workers and the environment, due to minimal monitoring of the processes that produce these objects. But dropshipping isn’t really good for sellers either: making a viable income from dropshipping requires a lot more work than the YouTube videos suggest, and those who are hoping that dropshipping can become their main income will likely be disappointed.

Whether it’s a large retailer or a single person importing AliExpress products into a digital storefront, the money is the same for social media companies like Facebook, Instagram, and e-commerce giants like Shopify. and Amazon. In the digital economy, the house always wins.


Lee J. Murillo

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