Alexis C. Madrigal first showed up on our radar 5+ years ago, and is best known for his work at the Atlantic. We recently caught up on his history here, which is worth an hour if you like to geek out on any/all things longform (as we do, numerous posts will attest). He has fresh material that is worth a read, birds of a feather with reporting from a dozen years earlier on then-pernicious scams:
A new breed of online retailer doesn’t make or even touch products, but they’ve got a few other tricks for turning nothing into money.
It all started with an Instagram ad for a coat, the West Louis (TM) Business-Man Windproof Long Coat to be specific. It looked like a decent camel coat, not fancy but fine. And I’d been looking for one just that color, so when the ad touting the coat popped up and the price was in the double-digits, I figured: hey, a deal!
The brand, West Louis, seemed like another one of the small clothing companies that has me tagged in the vast Facebook-advertising ecosystem as someone who likes buying clothes: Faherty, Birdwell Beach Britches, Life After Denim, some wool underwear brand that claims I only need two pairs per week, sundry bootmakers.
Perhaps the copy on the West Louis site was a little much, claiming “West Louis is the perfection of modern gentlemen clothing,” but in a world where an oil company can claim to “fuel connections,” who was I to fault a small entrepreneur for some purple prose?
Several weeks later, the coat showed up in a black plastic bag emblazoned with the markings of China Post, that nation’s postal service. I tore it open and pulled out the coat. The material has the softness of a Las Vegas carpet and the rich sheen of a velour jumpsuit. The fabric is so synthetic, it could probably be refined into bunker fuel for a ship. It was, technically, the item I ordered, only shabbier than I expected in every aspect.
I went to the West Louis Instagram account and found 20 total posts, all made between June and October of 2017. Most are just pictures of clothes. Doing a reverse image search, it’s clear that the Business-Man Windproof Long Coat is sold throughout the world on a variety of retail websites. Another sweatshirt I purchased through Instagram—I tracked down no less than 15 shops selling the identical item. I bought mine from Thecuttedge.life, but I could have gotten it from Gonthwid, Hzijue, Romwe, HypeClothing, Manvestment, Ladae Picassa, or Kovfee. Each very lightly brands the sweatshirt as its own, but features identical pictures of a mustachioed, tattooed model. That a decent percentage of the brands are unpronounceable in English just adds to the covfefe of it all.
All these sites use a platform called Shopify, which is like the WordPress or Blogger of e-commerce, enabling completely turnkey online stores. Now, it has over 500,000 merchants, a number that’s grown 74 percent per year over the last five years. On the big shopping days around Thanksgiving, they were doing $1 million in transactions per minute. And the “vast majority” of the stores on the service are small to medium-sized businesses, the company told me.
Shopify serves as the base layer for an emerging ecosystem that solders digital advertising through Facebook onto the world of Asian manufacturers and wholesalers who rep their companies on Alibaba and its foreigner-friendly counterpart, AliExpress…
Read the whole story here.