The unstoppable rise of Shein… should brands be worried?

Shein is everywhere. The Chinese ultra-fast fashion brand has recently exploded into common consciousness, having achieved more in the last decade than others have done in half a century. With non-stop social media marketing – notably on TikTok – a heavy presence on established influencer channels and a unique ability to offer consumers ‘real time’ fashion, it’s no surprise that by 2027, Shein is predicted to be the sixth largest apparel retailer in the UK, up from 11th in 2023. 

Despite the brand’s popularity, it’s common knowledge that Shein’s nod to sustainability and transparency is near non-existent, with well publicised reports of infringements on laws pertaining to human rights, copyright and environmental standards. 

This is at odds with what consumers often report to be important to them. Most would say in a heartbeat that they would never buy from a brand that doesn’t align with their values, yet we can see from Shein’s success that plenty of shoppers are setting aside their principles for a hot trend and a killer deal… and here we have the say-do gap being played out to perfection! 

This then begs the question, how has this divisive, digital-native retailer fostered such a prolific consumer base? And should brands try to keep up? 


Delivering unprecedented value for money in a cost of living crisis. 


It’s no secret that Shein offers (mostly) unmatched value for money. It operates on a just-in-time supply chain model, using real-time data to analyse the performance of items, so they can discontinue those that don’t sell, and order more of those that do. This type of ultra-fast fashion is relatively new to the UK, and with their vast catalogue of clothing lines being constantly updated, Shein has successfully tapped into the ‘need for new’ felt by British shoppers, while facilitating it at an extremely low price.

And the brand is gaining ground with older age groups too. This may be a surprise to some – perhaps due to their influential marketing activity on platforms like TikTok, many marketers mistakenly assume that most Shein shoppers are Gen Z and younger. In fact, research shows that the largest number of visitors to the Shein site are aged between 25-34, while a huge 21% of visitors fall into the 35-44 bracket, and 15% are 45-54.

So how is Shein casting such a wide net? For one thing, we know consumers are cutting costs wherever they can amidst an ongoing cost of living crisis. Shoppers living on a tightened budget have likely already made lifestyle changes to save money, but don’t want to completely give up that ‘little treat’ culture and the satisfaction it brings. This is where Shein has the obvious advantage — selling dresses for as little as £2.50.


Should fashion retailers be worried?


In all honesty, yes! If giants like Amazon are worried about Shein, then others probably should be too. Online-only retailers are growing in popularity — and high street retailers are facing the consequences. Just take the recent demise of British staple Wilko, or cosmetics marketplaces like Beauty Bay taking precedence over The Body Shop, which recently closed 75 of its stores after falling into administration. 

Shein has exceptionally low costs and plentiful supply on its side, so competitors are sure to be worrying about their market share. And with an ever diversifying product range, no brand can take its eye off the ball. 


What can brands do to retain market share and boost shopper loyalty? 


There’s no doubt it would be hard for most retailers to quickly compete with Shein. Keeping pace with either pricing or the sheer scale of their product range would likely require a total operational overhaul. But all is not lost, and brands with a consumer-first strategy are likely to be those who fight back the hardest. 

For instance, retailers with physical stores might look for more ways to deliver value via unique in-person experiences with loyalty schemes or exclusive discounts — tactics like this could go some way to keep hold of customers. But while so many shoppers are switching to Shein, brands should also invest in assessing the characteristics and behaviours of their shoppers, so they can make fully informed decisions on how best to target them. 

A fundamental element of this is knowing what you can credibly own and grow, and truly understanding things like category entry points is key. Those offering good quality basics are arguably less threatened by Shein compared to those offering single-season ‘disposable’ items of clothing.

But there is also another path for fashion brands to consider: standing the moral high ground, and offering a type of value that goes beyond the transactional cost to the consumer. This is no mean feat — and one Instagram post certainly isn’t going to do it — but there’s an opportunity here for brands to educate a younger audience on ethical, sustainable supply chains, and invite them to be a part of it. 

Through social proofing, brands can harness the power of social media and the sway of relevant influencers, nudging consumers to be more mindful about what and where they purchase. 

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