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Published June 25th 2018

Fake it ‘Til You Make it (Or Don’t) Part 2: Quality vs Cosmetics in Online Shopping

Our "Fake it 'til you make it" blog series zooms in on the shiny veil social media can place over shaky foundations. Our second instalment focuses on how glitzy storefronts don't always represent glitzy products, featuring an interview with someone who made $10k from naming cheap watches after Italian cities.

The internet made it easier than ever to start your own business, or so the countless “be your own boss” YouTube entrepreninfluencers would have you believe.

Regardless of how many of their tips will help you get rich, it’s true that a cheap website, an easily set up online store and a modest amount of imagination is all you need to start making cash online.

In the second part of our ‘fake it ’til you make it’ series we’ll be exploring how the democratization of e-commerce has meant everyone and anyone can have a storefront, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re all perfectly legitimate.

Social platforms are bringing in more and more ways to shorten the gap between discovering a product and purchasing it, while the likes of Shopify have made it easy for anyone to set up their own store. These avenues can certainly help you sell an image and an idea, but they can’t make your IRL product better and they can’t stop people feeling like they’ve been ripped off if there isn’t substance behind your shop window.

Here we’ll explore social as a sales method in the fashion and beauty industry with two examples of businesses which treat social as their lifeblood.

We’ll start on the shady end of the spectrum in a market where online smoke and mirrors are getting plenty of people to hand over their cash: Watches.

Time is money

My introduction to the over-priced watch selling game came in the for of this piece from Topic, entitled ‘There’s No Such Thing as a Free Watch.’ The article’s a pretty savage look at a number of websites peddling “free watches” where the customer only pays for shipping.

Each had a vague sounding brand name and a clean website. “Aspirational” influencers (described here as people with less than 1,000 followers who will trade product placement for exposure) were enlisted to boost the companies’ reach. None of the brands appeared to be easily traceable but each had idealistic founder stories or glamorous (photoshopped) shopfronts in big cities. Jenny Odell writes:

“The internet makes it possible for anyone to tell any story, about anything, from anywhere.”

It’s true. Anyone can make up a brand name, set up a website, buy cheap watches and sell them on for more.

We spoke to the a former online watch vendor whose business model relied on purchasing $30 watches from AliExpress and selling them for $120, a 300% mark up.

Our first question was around how you make a $30 watch look like a $120 watch. Our contact said that $30 watches looked surprisingly good, but it seemed that commercial success came from the product titles and the connotations of the descriptions and brand name.

We won’t reveal the name of the brand, but our contact told us it was purposefully named so that it denoted an air of exclusivity, inspired by “Secret Escapes.” They’d write product descriptions based on “someone who wants to buy a watch to make them look sophisticated and make it look like they’ve come up in the world” and then advertise them using Facebook. “I tested hundreds of advert and watch iterations on Facebook, maybe thousands,” they said.

And the winning combination?

“Mainly naming watches after Italian cities then slapping a number on the end.”

Our contact’s sleek looking website and savvy Facebook advertising campaigns made them a solid $10k before they sold the business on. While 300% may seem like an inflated amount to increase the price by, compared to other watch sellers who buy from manufacturers at $2 or less this could actually be fairly modest.

Clearly, you don’t need to be a master watchmaker – you don’t even need to come into contact with a watch – in order to make a fast buck in this industry.

I should note here that buying something and then selling it for more is not necessarily bad. If I learned anything from Tom Wainright’s “Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel” it’s that the “street price” of something is very different to what it is worth earlier in the supply chain. 134 metric tons of marijuana, seized in Mexico before it has been divided into retail-size quantities, smuggled across the border and marketed to consumers in the US, does not have a street value of half a billion dollars, as was claimed, since it is yet to go through that value added process.

Let’s assume that the $30 watches available on AliExpress are yet to go through their own value added process – namely that they need to be packaged, transported and marketed. The reseller and their staff, if there are any, will also want to be paid for their time in going about these activities. I don’t dispute that the process the watches must go through from manufacturer through to customer will add to the price tag, but whether 300% is a reasonable mark up is up for debate, especially if the finished product that arrives at the consumer’s door isn’t what they expected.

As Odell from Topic puts it, “Brands function to soften and mask the raw deal at the heart of every capitalist exchange, helping justify the otherwise-insane markup.”

The gems among the sequins

Of course, not all businesses that start out on social make you feel ripped off.

In May 2018 Glossier opened up its first LA-based physical store, 4 years after Emily Weiss revealed the brand’s first products on her blog in 2014.

When they went up for sale, the website was swamped with customers. New Yorkers were promised same day delivery if they ordered by 2pm, and the demand meant that the whole team were rushing about the city all day delivering products to their first customers. A clumsy operation behind a glitzy online storefront, perhaps, but one that delivered and left customers satisfied.

The brand, which started out as a beauty blog, flourished on Instagram after Weiss invested heavily in analytics that determined what worked best on the platform as well as making sure commenters felt heard. The company’s Insta might show off new products, but it also allows for feedback and product development driven by fans of the brand. Here’s a little excerpt from a great profile in Entrepreneur that demonstrates the relationship between followers and the product team.

One post in February 2016, for example, asked followers what they wanted most in a heavy-duty moisturizer. More than 1,000 people responded; the company took that feedback and used it to build a product called Priming Moisturizer Rich, which it released in January.

The brand also invited influencers to meet with Weiss in New York and created a program that enabled them to sell Glossier products to their followers and friends – a hugely successful initiative.

By using social media to listen and interact as well as promote products, Glossier created a cult-like following that turned a small start up into an incredibly successful business with vocally loyal customers.

Same message, two paths

There are obvious differences between the two kinds of companies we’ve discussed here, especially when you look at the bottom lines, but the two can be compared in some ways.

Small beginnings, a reliance on social media, the use of influencers, sleek websites and audience research (at least to some extent) are part of both strategies.

What sets them apart? Substance and authenticity, and these are harder to spot at first glance.

The perceived aims of a small scale watch vendor and a now multimillion dollar beauty company might be quite similar, for example “to provide attractive cosmetic items to ordinary people at an affordable price”. But the whether a merchant lives by that aim and has a focus on the quality of the product is something that can only be discovered with further research (either by looking at reviews from others or by making a purchase and deciding for yourself).

The internet pretty much allows anyone to market anything in any way, meaning cheap watches are probably going to continue to get sold for way more than they’re worth.

If Oobah Butler could convince the world that his shed is the most highly rated restaurant in London and, separately, fake his way into Paris Fashion Week, a chancer with a watch website can easily convince people they’re buying from the best.

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