Resellers, Drop Shippers and Shopping Services : What to Look for in a “Middleman” When Buying from Chinese Indie Brands – Part I
Earlier this week, I talked about how I felt that the community had come to fundamentally misunderstand what Milanoo was (and wasn’t) as a company. And, as part of that, I suggested that going forward we (more established lolita) should try to give new lolita more tools to identify when a reseller, drop shipper or shopping service was shady and when they weren’t instead of them simply relying on someone else saying if a shop is or isn’t run Milanoo, regardless of if it is or isn’t.
Before we go any farther, let’s get some definitions out of the way:
Reseller: A reseller buys items from one retail source and resells them. A true reseller has inventory in their possession. If you went to your local clothing store and bought 10 shirts from them and then set up an online shop where you sold those shirts, you would be a reseller. However, for the sake of consistent language, we are going to use this term even for companies with webshops that do not have any inventory on hand, as long as they don’t fit into one of the other categories better.
Stockist: A stockist has a relationship with a manufacturer or brand and buys from them wholesale to resell retail. The Lolita Collective is a stockist of a few Chinese indie brands, as is Wunderwelt Fleur.
Drop Shipping: Drop shippers make a listing for an item on their website, and when someone buys that listing, they turn around and buy the item from someone else and have it shipped by the original seller to the buyer.
Shopping Service: A shopping service allows you to select an item and give them instructions about the item. They purchase the item for you and charge a fee for completing the transaction. They have no stock.
Forwarding Service: A company that provides what is basically like a P.O. Box for you in another country. You get a custom address (typically their address plus some sort of identification info that marks the package as “yours”), and when the package arrives at their location, they facilitate shipping it to you overseas. A forwarding service is used when you can buy the item online, but the seller won’t ship to your country.
Most, but not all, websites that have web shops that sell things made by Chinese indie brands are kind of a hybrid. Unlike a traditional reseller, and like a drop shipping company, most have no inventory on hand, and just translate listings from Taobao and re-post them on their site. However, like a forwarding service, they order the item to be shipped to them and then forward it to you instead of making the other company ship to you. Unlike a traditional shopping service, most of these sites really only sell the items they have listed; you can’t simply browse Taobao and then ask them to buy whatever you want. Because these sites are usually called resellers in the lolita community, we are going to use the term reseller for consistency.
Part I – Evaluating Taobao Resellers
The very first thing I look at when I look at one of these reseller sites is look at their Product selection, staring with how they handle the brand names. Chinese lolita brands are distinct companies. Some aim for a higher price point and use higher quality materials (Krad Lanrete). Some aim for a lower price point and use less expensive materials (To Alice). Some make original work, while others primarily sell counterfeit brand dresses (Dream of Lolita).
So, having the brand name up front and not removing it from the images tells me that the company respects the designers and the companies they are working with as actual designers. It also tells me that they expect some of their customers to be familiar with those brand names, and/or they expect to get repeat customers who follow a certain brand that they stock. Companies that list the brand names of pieces also tend to be selecting pieces from more respectable brands. And lastly, it also tells me they aren’t trying to strong-arm people in ordering from them. A common tactic of shadier shopping services / re-sellers is to post pictures without the sources and refuse to answer where something came from to force people to order from them (even if their service is more expensive or less reliable).
Next, I look more deeply into their product selection. Are they stocking reputable brands? Do they stock the dreaded ita ball gowns? If you have ever looked at a shady reseller site, you probably know the ones. They are old school brand dresses, usually 10+ years old that have been copied in cheap quilting cotton or satin and lengthened from normal lolita length to ball gown length. They typically come in black x white and a smattering of other weird colors, and are the sort of thing you tend to see worn by people “cosplaying as a lolita” at anime conventions. They come from the same taobao shop source as the solid colored brand dresses that are cut out and put on floral background, which Milanoo was notorious for stocking, and notoriously have very low quality, but surprisingly high prices. Any seller who is stocking these is making no attempt to make sure that they items they are stocking are good quality.
Do they stock replicas? If so, do they use stolen stock photos for those replicas? While selling replicas doesn’t necessarily mean the shop won’t fulfill orders or do everything else correctly, it is illegal, and immoral, so I personally dock a point for that.
Next, I look at their Policies. Chinese indie brands typically don’t accept returns, so I don’t expect a western-style return policy, but there are some things I expect. For example, if I put a pair of shoes in my cart in size 40 / red and I get the same pair of shoes but in size 37 / blue in the mail, that is the reseller’s mistake, and they should fix it and cover the cost of shipping it back to them and shipping the new item to you. Their mistake should not cost you money. If the item comes in and it’s damaged from transport, and there was shipping insurance, they should process the shipping insurance claim and issue a refund.
If the item is defective (came in with a broken zipper, arm is sewn closed, etc), and the defect is not just a case of you wanted/expected it to be nicer than it is, then ideally the reseller should work with you to get it returned to the brand who made it and exchanged or refunded. I chalk this up as partly their mistake because they should have inspected it before sending it on to you, however, some resellers will not do this. Resellers that have policies that say they won’t inspect items / aren’t responsibly for mistakes up front are a little more risky, IMHO.
If the item doesn’t fit, but is marked the correct size, or if the color is slightly different than the picture, or if it comes in and I just don’t like it… those situations typically aren’t covered. The reseller is really just acting as a shopping service; they only purchased the item because you want it. If you return it, they can’t return it to the brand who made it, so they are then stuck with it. So trying to make this type of return is generally considered rude, and often not permitted. Policies which forbid this type of return are normal and ok, IMHO.
Next, I look at the prices. Compare how much they are charging with the cost of the same item or similar items from the same brand elsewhere. Resellers have to sell the items for more than they cost direct from Taobao since they roll shipping inside of China and all their fees into the price, but if one reseller is selling a dress for $50 and another is selling the same dress for $100, that should be a red flag. In that situation, it’s likely that the reseller selling it for $100 is overcharging by a lot for the item.
Also get familiar with how much each brand typically charges. For example, Krad Lanrete items tend to be more expensive, closer to Japanese brand items in price, where as To Alice tends to be cheaper, closer to bodyline items in price. Little Dipper, a brand I like to buy from, tends to have dress prices that average around the $50-$70 range.
I also take a look at payment methods. Ideally, a site should take paypal and anyone taking paypal should process payments as business transactions, not “gift”/”friends”/”family” payments. Sites which have a bunch of logos for what payment types they take and shipping they offer tend to be less respectable in my experience.
Last, but not least, I look at their self promotion. Do they seem to pay people for reviews? If so, those reviews are likely going to be skewed/biased. Are they stealing content from lolita on weibo, facebook, instagram, blogs etc like Milanoo used to without credit? That’s a big red flag. Are they intentionally joining groups to post spammy posts like hopeygal or milanoo was? All of these are red flags. A good company might sponsor influencers when they are starting out, but if the company seems to be made up of non-lolita who don’t interact authentically in lolita spaces, that can be a red flag.
And those are my 5 P’s for reseller shops:
- Product Selection – Do they only stock good quality items?
- Policies – Will they fix their own mistakes for free?
- Prices – Are the prices reasonable?
- Payment methods – Do they take paypal?
- Promotion – Are they being ethical / honest in their self promotion?
Reseller shops are not always the best deal for your money, but they do offer a fairly straight forward process. If you are nervous about browsing Taobao on your own, working with a reputable reseller shop can be worth a little extra money for the convenience of having everything professionally translated and packaged up into an English website.
What are some things that you look for in selecting a reseller shop? Have you had bad (or good) experiences with any particular shop? Let me know in the comments below, and stay tuned for part II which will be about
Chinese shopping services.