shein marketing strategy

Shein’s market strategy: how the Chinese fast-fashion brand is conquering the West

Shein is now the largest Chinese cross-border fast fashion e-commerce company. The e-tailing brand reaches consumers in the United States, France, Russia, Germany, and over 150 other countries. In 2023, the app had over 261.9 million downloads, with over 53 million users worldwide. The e-commerce platform stands out as one of the most rapidly expanding fashion retail websites in the United States. On TikTok, the hashtag #Shein has garnered over 84.4 billion views.

In 2022, the Chinese company earned a yearly revenue of USD 22.7 billion (up from USD 16 billion in 2021). For Westerners, the app’s obsession seems to have appeared out of nowhere. However, this type of explosive growth is increasingly common among new Chinese companies that prioritize revenue and growth before profits.

Shein app downloads worldwide
Source: Statista, designed by Daxue Consulting, Total number of Shein app downloads worldwide from 2019 to 2023

What is Shein?

Founded in 2008, it is a B2C Chinese online clothing and accessories retailer selling globally, but not in China. It offers women’s clothing for all occasions and sizes, with additional categories for men, children, and also home life products. With a global warehouse network that allows it to ship to over 220 countries and regions worldwide, the Singapore-based e-commerce is one of the fastest-growing fast fashion brands.

Download our report on the future of sustainable fashion in China

Sustainable fashion in China cover image

What is the secret behind Shein’s business model?

Its business model is all in its Chinese DNA. Its true advantage is “real-time fashion”, a business model that takes the “fast-fashion” model to its extreme by identifying fashion trends quickly and minimizing manufacturing cycles. To shorten the time it takes to identify trends, design, manufacture, and ship, Shein uses an in-house design team and comprehensive analysis of fashion trend data. With this, this Chinese company can design, prototype, and ship products substantially faster than its fast fashion competitors, releasing 500-2,000 new pieces every day.

Shein’s market strategy stands out from Western fast-fashion brands due to its unprecedented speed in product launches. In 2020, they introduced 150,000 new items, averaging over 10,000 per month, surpassing Zara’s annual volume in just one to two months. The Chinese e-commerce offers similar dresses as other fast fashion brands at half the price, with more diverse styles, varied colors, and patterns. The brand’s mission is to make fashion accessible to all consumers, irrespective of their economic status.

inclusivity is part of shein's marketing strategy
Source: Shein Official Instagram pages, #Sheinofficial and #Sheincurve, featuring cheap summer styles for women of all shapes and sizes

Inside Shein’s successful marketing strategy

Its curated collections, meticulously selected by its team of stylists, offer a catalog with user-friendly navigation. The products are categorized based on gender, body type, promotions, fashion trends, seasonal collections, and styles for a seamless shopping experience. With a vast product range and frequent catalog updates, the app appeals to young, price-conscious consumers seeking trendy selections rather than a lasting wardrobe.

1. Targeting Gen Z consumers

Shein’s target audience are price-driven customers who love online shopping from all over the world. The website sees frequent purchases from Gen Z consumers, predominantly women, as well as parents with children aged 1 to 15 years old.

Since Gen Z is the most important target consumer group for the platform, which hence aims to be desirable, unique, and socially acceptable for young people. This demographic represents a significant market segment but requires tailormade strategies. For instance, 55% of Gen Z cite price as the most important factor when shopping for fashion emphasizing that they are extremely price sensitive. Shein provides an omnichannel experience with its website, app, and social media, as well as a wide network of fashion influencers. Compared to other generations, Generation Z relies more on social media and targeted mobile advertising to discover fashion brands. Across the fast fashion retailer’s social media presence, 17.84% of their followers are aged 18-24, and 30.65% are aged 25-34.

Moreover, the Singapore-based retailer collaborates with Western celebrities adored by young people, including but not limited to Katy Perry, Lil Nas X, Rita Ora, Nick Jonas, and Hailey Bieber to further engage with its target audience. In addition to these collaborations, Shein expanded its partnerships in other segments and regions. In 2021, it collaborated with fashion brand Sarah Kes for a new spring collection. In 2022, the Chinese e-tailer collaborated with Omani celebrity and actress Buthaina Al Raisi.

2. Micro-influencer marketing strategy

Partnering with micro-influencers, often individuals with a modest following on Instagram, YouTube, or TikTok, the fashion retailer has established a unique collaboration approach. In exchange for their posts, these influencers receive complimentary product deliveries every month. Some of them can also get up to 10 to 20% commission from the app’s referral sales. This referral strategy is indeed effective, as it helps to spread awareness about the brand.

          2.1 Shein’s presence on Tiktok

It has created armies of fashion bloggers supporting the brand with haul videos of their purchases under the hashtag “#shein”. Shopping purchases are driven by a constant stream of coupons and discount codes. Influencers get free merchandise every month for their posts on TikTok. Others earn commissions on sales directed to, above the average affiliate rates that other small stores cannot compete with. Many bloggers, influencers, and YouTubers alike enjoy working with this platform due to the flat rate per video profit made rather than a “brand exclusivity” contract. This creates an easy and convenient working experience for both parties.

shein hauls on tiktok
Source: TikTok, hashtag Sheinhaul view results hits billions of views

          2.2. Shein’s marketing strategy on YouTube

The e-tailing platform has created an environment that allows shoppers to feel smart and savvy to find the perfect outfit in style. The sheer range of items sold through the store and the fact that not everything is always in stock create a somewhat gamified experience. Customers are happy to film themselves unpacking their clothes to try them on and show how they found these inexpensive goods. Sometimes, these products may not be the right size or look cheaper than they appear to be on the Internet, but this risk adds to the fun of a customer’s experience.

Shein haul videos by influencers
Source: YouTube, Shein haul videos by influencers

Moreover, the app offers customers the opportunity to join its affiliate program. Participants can earn commissions by promoting Shein on social media, where followers place orders through referral links. This program includes options like the Shein Official Affiliate and Partner Affiliate Platforms.

3. No permanent stores but pop-up stores to transform digital focus into in-person engagement

Even though it has no permanent brick-and-mortar stores, Shein has opened pop-up stores in many cities since 2018, such as Las Vegas, Milan, and Barcelona. Maxine Silva, senior director of brand PR, mentioned that the Singapore-based fast fashion retailer doesn’t intend to open permanent stores for the moment. However, as a global online retailer, they aim to target cities with a high concentration of online shoppers, offering customers a unique and enjoyable in-person shopping experience. In line with the company’s digital focus, their temporary stores feature social-friendly spots for customers to capture Instagram-worthy photos while shopping.

Shein, Amazon, and Temu: similarities and differences of the three e-tailing giants

Currently, Amazon, Shein, and Temu are three key players in the global e-commerce landscape. Understanding the quirks and differences among the three platforms is key to figuring out what makes Shein stand out, especially when stacked against the more traditional Amazon and the up-and-coming Temu.

What makes Shein different from Amazon

Amazon taught Western consumers to shop online and build their shopping habits through data collection from search optimization. This app adopted Amazon’s strategy when entering the US, competing head-to-head and asserting dominance with USD 10.3 billion in online net sales in 2022. Amazon stands out with a broader product range and established brands, compared to Shein, which adopts a budget-friendly approach. Both platforms provide flexible exchange and return policies, but Amazon’s delivery, especially with Prime, is notably faster than Shein, which may experience longer delivery times, particularly for products shipped from China. For urgent needs, consumers may prefer Amazon despite potentially higher prices.

A rising Nemesis: Temu

Unlike Amazon, which offers stable product quality, Shein and Temu require careful selection.  Initially concentrating on apparel and accessories, Shein has expanded its product range to include sewing and textile, home décor, car decoration, beauty items, small appliances, and toys. In contrast, Temu, a marketplace affiliated with Pinduoduo, offers a wide array of goods, distinguished by its budget-friendly prices, faster shipping, and a distinctive group-buying feature that allows customers to secure lower prices when purchasing items in bulk with others.

shen vs amazon vs temu
Source: designed by Daxue Consulting, Shein, Amazon, and Temu in China

What Chinese companies can learn from the app’s success in the West

In a way, this fast fashion retailer helped test the waters for Chinese brands looking to expand abroad, to see what market strategies they can take abroad, and what won’t work. Here’s a look at what Shein’s market strategies worked in the West.

1. Agility and high responsiveness to trends

Shein’s success underscores the importance of swift adaptation to fashion trends. Prioritizing agility in the supply chain, production, and decision-making processes to quickly respond to evolving consumer preferences can provide Chinese companies abroad with a great competitive edge, especially when targeting Gen-Z.

2. Diverse and affordable offerings

Drawing inspiration from Taobao, Shein offers lower prices than any Western fast fashion brand. The brand’s ability to produce large quantities of each item in bulk further reduces costs, facilitating its swift growth.

3. Hunger marketing

The e-tailing platform’s mastery of hunger marketing tactics is evident through its frequent catalog updates, flash sales, and exclusive discount codes. The brand’s IP collaborations and pop-up stores further fuel consumer anticipation, emphasizing the effectiveness of scarcity and exclusivity in driving sales.

4. Omnichannel and social media presence

The app has over 250 million social media followers drives success by facilitating brand discovery and audience engagement. Their robust digital presence, intertwined with influencer marketing targeting younger shoppers, strengthens the brand’s reputation through clothing hauls and reviews.

5. Micro-influencer marketing

This app’s strategy mirrors KOC marketing in China, fostering mutually beneficial partnerships. This approach exposes the brand to new audiences through fashion-forward clothing, offering smaller influencers free clothes in exchange for opinions and social media exposure. Leveraging lesser-known influencers minimizes marketing costs and adds credibility, as smaller influencers are often perceived as more relatable.

What to avoid when going abroad

Despite its success in the global market, it is not without controversies. One issue involves imperfectly implemented body positivity, where heavily photoshopped images contradict the brand’s inclusive stance.

The Singapore-based e-commerce has also faced criticism for poor social responsibility, with allegations of unsustainable practices, poor working conditions, and data breaches.

Cultural insensitivity, excessive ads, and notifications contribute to negative user experiences.

Additionally, the fast fashion retailer is entangled in numerous lawsuits for design theft and copyright infringement, raising ethical concerns despite its substantial valuation.

6 steps for understanding Shein’s marketing strategy

  • Shein is a Chinese B2C fast fashion e-commerce giant targeting women, Gen Z consumers, and young parents worldwide in about 150 countries. Its success lies in its “real-time fashion” business model, emphasizing rapid trend identification, in-house design teams, and quick manufacturing cycles, enabling the release of 500-2,000 new pieces daily.
  • The e-commerce targets Gen Z consumers globally through an omnichannel approach, collaborating with Western celebrities, employing micro-influencers on platforms like TikTok and YouTube, and offering an affiliate program for user-generated content promotion.
  • Despite being an online retailer, the app engages consumers through pop-up stores in various cities, enhancing the in-person shopping experience and aligning with its digital focus.
  • Shein’s success proves that some marketing tactics used in China are also effective in the West. The utilization of strategies like micro-influencer marketing, frequent discounts, and low pricing inspired by Chinese platforms like Taobao, along with a strong social media presence, has been particularly fruitful.
  • The global expansion of the Singapore-based e-commerce platform also highlights the crucial significance of steering clear of controversies tied to body positivity, social responsibility, cultural insensitivity, and legal issues.