The Problem With Buying Cheap Stuff Online



The package got in a small black box, covered in tape. It had no return address. Under layers of packaging, there was a box labeled Smart Watch, with no brand name. Inside the box was the watch itself, that looked nothing like the inexpensive Apple Watch I’d hoped it would be. Instead, the large digital confront featured icons for Twitter, Facebook, a pedometer, and a photo-taking app called “Camina” rather than “camera.” It was about what you’d expect for a smart watch that cost less than $20.

I ordered the watch from Wish.com, one of a growing number of sites that allows consumers from around the world to buy completely discounted goods from China, directly from sellers or manufacturers there. After receiving promotional emails from Wish offering bikinis for $4 (marked down from $75!), camera drones for $29 (down from $1,399!), and, for a few reason, a spoon that says “My Peanut-Butter Spoon” for $1 (down from $12), I can no longer resist. I ordered the smart watch, advertised as “Hot Sell New product Q18S Smart Wrist Watch” for $18, marked down, supposedly, from $896. The product had more than 8,000 reviews in dozens of languages, averaging four stars. “Its cool I like it for the price,” read one.

Wish is emblematic of a growing trend in e-commerce: shoppers buying directly from Chinese manufacturers and merchants. Wish and sites like AliExpress, LightInTheBox, and even Amazon have enabled more Chinese sellers to penetrate the U.S. market, where they compete with U.S. manufacturers and U.S. retailers who themselves have been importing goods from China. Though the products from these sites take longer to arrive because they’re coming from overseas, a few analysts think sites like Wish represent the future of shopping. Wish is, according to Forbes, worth $8.5 billion, about the same as Macy’s, J.C. Penney, and Sears combined. Its valuation has more than doubled after a year ago, when it received $500 million in funding. Its logo now appears on the jerseys of the Los Angeles Lakers.

These sites represent a dissimilar type of shopping than customers have engaged in for decades, even with the rise of e-commerce. For much of the 20th century, shoppers would drive to a store, browse over rows of goods, and then buy the clothes or headphones or cameras they wished and then drive home. Then, they would browse the websites of stores and retailers and demand clothes or headphones or cameras brought to their doorsteps. But now, these new sites are helping consumers skip that retailer middleman; the websites are themselves the retail middleman. People can buy cheap stuff like bikinis or drones directly from the manufacturer or seller, no matter where that retailer is based.

“As long as retail has existed, you’ve consistently had retailers sell to customers, because multiple manufacturers were unfit to do so,” Juozas Kaziukėnas, the founder and CEO of Marketplace Pulse, an e-commerce research site, signified to me. “But over time, as advice has spread and it becomes easier, you have manufacturers selling, too.” Kaziukėnas estimates that as multiple as one-third of Amazon’s sellers are based in China. Often, Chinese sellers will ship products in bulk to the United States, where they’ll sit in warehouses operated by Amazon, Wish, or other companies, until U.S. companies demand them, he said.

Though it’s difficult to track merely how much the direct-from-China market has grown, the number of packages received from overseas in the United States has exploded in recent years. The U.S. Postal Service brought 175 million letters and packages from overseas in the first three months of 2018, up from 97 million in the same stretch in 2013, according to the USPS. The Postal Service makes it simple for Chinese sellers to ship cheaply to the United States: Under a program called ePacket, merchants can ship items that weigh less than 4.4 pounds, and receive tracking and delivery confirmation services for a low rate. Often, it costs less to ship a package to a U.S. destination from China than it does to ship that item domestically.

Sites like Wish have created a whole new type of shopping for customers whose first priority is low prices. They include Darlene Echaverria, 58, who stumbled over Wish when shopping for her grandson in 2016. He had asked for a few Adidas Yeezy shoes, that sell for about $300. Echaverria, a retired nurse, wasn’t going to spend that much on sneakers, so she googled the shoes to see if she can find a cheaper version. Her search brought her to Wish, where a sneaker that looked similar to the Yeezy sneaker was selling at merely $16. “I thought it was too fantastic to be true,” she signified to me. When they got after a few weeks, her grandson loved them, but she had ordered the wrong size, so Echaverria now wears them.

Since then, she’s purchased dozens of stuff on Wish, including $4 bras, $6 jeans, and a $60 coat. She bought a $400 pool vacuum cleaner that was marked down to $75, and it still works, she says. She estimates that she bought stuff from the site a few times a week, until her husband nagged her to cut it out. Sometimes, the site will offer her stuff for free, like clothing for her Chihuahua rat terrier—she merely has to pay for shipping. Since the goods aren’t coming from a retailer, they’re often packaged oddly: Shoes come wrapped in bubble tape with no shoebox, electronics come without any English instructions. But Echaverria says that as long as people fathom they’re getting a cheap item from China, they’ll like Wish. “You have to set your expectations realistic. If you don’t you’re going to be disappointed,” she says. “It’s not like you’re going to Dillard’s and spending $100 on jeans. You’re getting $5 jeans.”

Wish presents a significant challenge to the U.S. importers and manufacturers who have to compete with websites selling cheap stuff directly from China. “If you’re a manufacturer in the United States, you’re not happy about this, because you can’t make anything as cheaply as the companies in China can,” Kaziukėnas signified to me. It’s much cheaper to make goods in China because of the low cost of labor and lax labor requirements. That’s why shoppers once flocked to stores like Target or Walmart, where they can buy low-priced goods imported from China. Target and Walmart provided quality control, but for customers willing to take a risk, sites like Wish work well. Why buy a $40 bikini made in America when you can buy a $4 bikini directly from China? For that matter, why buy a $20 bikini made in China but imported by a U.S. company like the Gap when you can buy a $4 bikini directly from China?


An $18 watch ordered from Wish.com (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

Sites like Wish further create problems for localities trying to collect sales tax on items sold online. Most sellers from China are third-party sellers, that means that sites like Amazon and Wish do not have to collect sales tax on items sold in best states. (Many states are currently fighting this practice in court.) Even if more states begin requiring third-party sellers to begin collecting sales tax, it will be more difficult to enforce the law from companies based in China than those with a U.S. presence. “A lot of states assert a lot of these Chinese companies are not paying taxes at all because they are foreign entities and they don’t care,” Kaziukėnas said.

Still, there are signs that a few customers won’t stand for low-quality products. As I’ve written before, sites like Amazon that enable third-party sellers—including those in China—to sell counterfeit and knockoff products are facing a wave of lawsuits from consumers and companies that assert the websites themselves should be responsible when customers receive poor-quality or counterfeit products. One series of lawsuits blames Amazon for selling hoverboards from China whose batteries explode. Customers who buy products from Wish or other direct-from-China sites may be so disappointed with their purchases that they’ll return to buying from brand-name merchants whose products they trust. “We have a pretty high bar for quality in this country,” Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst at Forrester, signified to me. “People will try this stuff once, have a bad experience, and they never buy it again.”

Reviews of Wish suggest that multiple customers have indeed had bad experiences. The 512 customer reviews of Wish on Hiya.com are mostly negative, with one-star reviews and customers calling the company a “scam” and a “rip-off.” They tell stories of the site sending rings that angle fingers green, products paid for and never received, and requests for returns and refunds ignored. “Yes, you save money, if you actually get your stuff! Never again will I ordered [sic] from Wish,” one customer, Regina Ashley, wrote. (Ashley, a Virginia resident, confirmed to me in an email that she had written the review.)

I reached out to Wish to ask them about their company model and negative customer reviews, but the company doesn’t appear to have much of a presence in San Francisco, where its website says its headquarters are located. In the “Contact Us” section, Wish shows a Google Map of downtown San Francisco, but with no pin on the map to show where the company is located. I emailed support, that was the only way I can figure out how to contact Wish, and stated I was a reporter hoping to talk to a spokesperson. The reply was cryptic: “Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like we require your services at this time, but thank you for your interest and thank you for contacting us,” an email from a customer-support member, Justin, read. When I replied that I wasn’t looking for customer support, but a press person, I didn’t hear back.

My own Wish shopping experience didn’t make me likely to go back to the site. The “Smart Watch” pedometer does not measure my steps, no matter how difficult I stomp. Reading the tiny two-page user guide, that is printed in Chinese on one side and English on the other, does not help. Here are the first two sentences about the pedometer function: “Pedometer designed specifically for those concerned about the health. recommends the use of chest stride proudly authority of motion, the magnitude of the normal walking arm, enabling a more accurate count to the number of steps.”

The watch keeps asking me to insert a SIM card to use best of its functions, yet none of the three telephone stores I went to in San Francisco’s Chinatown can find a SIM card that worked. One store kept feeding the watch dissimilar SIM cards, merely to receive an error message. I bought a memory card so I can use the watch’s camera function, but the camera takes photos upside down, and only if you hold the watch at an odd angle.

For now, I plan to relegate it to my drawer of cheap crap I’ve bought from dissimilar places: dollar stores, vending machines at supermarkets, Amazon.com. At the completion of the day, it seems, you still get what you pay for.


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