Is This How Amazon Ends?

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Written By Pinang Driod

When you’re shopping around for something on Amazon, you’re probably hoping to end up with a product that is good enough. Many of the site’s stock images and product descriptions have an unpredictable relationship to the objects you’ll actually receive; to guard against surprises, you frequently need to peruse the ratings and reviews left by the shoppers who came before you. In exchange for this low-stakes gamble, you get a huge selection of products, decent prices, and very fast shipping. Often enough, you also get a good enough result.

This balance is part of what has made Amazon a fabulously profitable business. Over time, the company has transformed itself into something that functions more like a global flea market than a traditional retail store. Most of the products on Amazon’s website are sold by millions of third-party sellers, many of them outside the U.S., who construct their own product listings and mostly store their inventory in Amazon’s American fulfillment centers. Since Amazon launched its marketplace in 2000, sellers around the globe—and especially in China—have flocked to the program. When you buy something through these listings, Amazon takes a cut of the sale for streamlining your interaction with a business that may actually be in Guangzhou or Shenzhen.

This approach has, on some level, been a boon to all parties. Sellers get more direct access to American consumers than they’d ever had with traditional retail models, and those consumers get access to an abundance of cheap goods, even if sorting through all of them requires more guesswork than picking up something at your local Target. The biggest beneficiary of all, though, has been Amazon, which has managed to convince its customers to accept a fundamental jankiness in both the site and many of its goods. The success of this system is what has made the retailer into the Everything Store. It might also be what leads to the eventual end of Amazon’s dominance.

For several years running, American media have been puzzling over the rise of a new crop of ultra-cheap international retailers that ship much of their inventory directly to Western buyers from Chinese suppliers. Shein, founded in China and now based in Singapore, was the first of these mega-retailers to take off in the U.S., charming young shoppers in the early days of the pandemic with clothing so inexpensive that it made H&M look like a splurge. The company, which has expanded its offerings to include scores of electronics, sporting goods, and office supplies, brought in $23 billion in 2022, and the U.S. was its top revenue market. Then came Temu, founded by the Chinese conglomerate PDD Holdings and headquartered in Boston, which introduced itself to American shoppers through Super Bowl commercials in February. Analysts estimate that the retailer is on track to bring in $16 billion in revenue this year.

The sudden prominence of these companies has started to set off alarms. Their figures pale in comparison to Amazon’s $220 billion in 2022 revenue from online sales, but they’re startlingly high for companies so new to American shoppers. Target, by comparison, brought in about $20 billion in revenue from its website in 2022, which means that Shein and Temu have managed to spin up Target-size online retailers in just a few years. This turn of events has unsettled many people who seem to feel that China has barged into American retail completely unbidden. Last week, Bloomberg fretted that these retailers’ rise meant that “piles of Chinese junk” topped Christmas lists for U.S. consumers.

The sentiment is both a bit rude and a bit late, though not necessarily incorrect. Americans have been snapping up inexpensive, imported stuff, Chinese and otherwise, for decades. The shelves of Walmart, Target, and Costco, among many others, are full of cheap foreign products. This is a reality of American shopping, whether or not buyers realize it: Periodic surveys of consumer sentiment find that huge proportions of Americans say they either won’t or don’t want to buy things made in China, but their behavior usually doesn’t reflect those preferences and never really has. What’s new this holiday season is not that Americans are buying cheap things that come from China; it’s that they’re buying things from Chinese companies that appear to be pushing online retail as far to its logical extreme as possible.

Somewhat paradoxically, Amazon seems to bear significant responsibility for this turn of events. For much of its existence, one of Amazon’s primary marketing functions has been to put a trustworthy American veneer on products without a recognizable brand name that have been conceptualized, designed, and produced wholly overseas. In exchange for that familiarity and access to its audience and logistics services, Amazon takes a huge portion of each sale—around half, according to an estimate earlier this year. For scores of businesses overseas selling on Amazon under nonsensical collections of letters such as JOYMOOP and RFUNGUANGO, Amazon was the brand that made their products marketable in the U.S. Buyers might not be familiar with the names or products, but they trusted that Amazon would send their stuff quickly and take it back if they didn’t like it. Amazon made the unknown seem sufficiently reliable, or at least sufficiently American.

Over time, though, Amazon’s Americanness has begun to slip. As the site has made buying foreign products more palatable, it has also begun to feel more foreign. Perusing Amazon comes with an uncanny sense of placelessness—the reality that you’re not transacting with Americans is unavoidable, even if it’s never exactly clear who you are transacting with. Product descriptions have become stranger, and many clearly weren’t generated by fluent English speakers, if they were even generated by a person at all. The photos have become eerie in their odd proportions and obvious alterations. Earlier this year, the journalist John Herrman described the deteriorating quality of the experience of shopping on Amazon as “junkification.” Turkish sellers describing towels, Chinese sellers describing headphones, and Korean sellers describing skin-care products all sound sort of the same. Lately, significant elements of product listings are mediated by the retailer’s experimental forays into artificial intelligence, which place stock-image toasters into fake kitchenscapes and summarize lengthy customer reviews into stilted sound bites.

American shoppers, for their part, seem to have adjusted just fine to this new, strange shopping experience. People simply don’t seem to care too much that products come from elsewhere, so long as the price is right—especially as inflation challenges their spending power at domestic retailers. On its face, that’s great news for Amazon. The company has years of proof that a lack of quality and coherence is not necessarily an obstacle to increased profits. Amazon’s scope and power is unparalleled right now, as its profits continue to expand alongside its logistics operation, which now delivers billions of packages a year. But in a larger sense, consumers’ comfort with what and how Amazon is selling might also mean that Amazon’s own obsolescence as a retailer is built into the company’s business model. Walmart and Target, at the very least, have something extra to offer to consumers looking for wide selections and good prices: large networks of long-standing physical stores, which most shoppers still prefer. For Amazon, which has so far been unable to figure out its own brick-and-mortar retail strategy, acclimating American shoppers to risk and unpredictability in their everyday transactions is making the company’s veneer of domestic reliability less valuable with every passing day.

That, more than anything, is what Shein and Temu (and, to a certain extent, TikTok Shop) seem to be banking on: Amazon, in its quest for continual growth, has made millions of Western shoppers comfortable with the idea that they’re buying stuff that very well might be useless junk from unseen overseas sources. Why not cut out the American middleman? (Perhaps especially given that Amazon has been accused in an antitrust case by the FTC and 17 state attorneys general of attempting to exert anti-competitive control over its sellers; Amazon disputes the charges.) You don’t even have to create a particularly slick or reliable-seeming user interface to do it—Amazon is not a website known for its information clarity or aesthetic beauty, after all. Temu and Shein are using exactly these arguments to court sellers, promising much lower fees to use the platform. They also require sellers to display relatively little information about the products they’re selling.

Across all the big marketplace retailers, American and not, it’s not uncommon to find listings that appear to advertise products that are identical, or at least so similar that the differences are difficult to parse. Though not always, Shein and Temu are usually cheaper. Sometimes, they’re cheaper by a lot. Suppressing prices to unprofitable levels is a common tactic used by new retailers to steal market share from their competitors. Amazon has employed it for years to convert newcomers to online shopping and away from their local brick-and-mortars. Now Temu seems to have adopted the tactic to wrench sales away from Amazon.

Amazon, for its part, refutes the idea that products available on its website are similar to those listed by its foreign counterparts—it has gone so far as to exclude Temu from its price-matching policy, telling Reuters that it has strict standards for the competitors it considers reputable. Shoppers seem more than willing to give these cheaper options a try, though, and it’s not clear whether they’ll find much daylight between those options and what’s available on Amazon. If they do, it’s not clear how much they’ll care. Amazon’s tactics and dominance have gone a long way toward making the process of buying totally meaningless. Eventually, the company might not like what that means.

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