Sixty dollars and 2½ weeks later, Brome was the confused owner of a pair of shirts he said felt as sturdy as paper party favors. They seemed equally unlikely to survive a spin cycle. He’d bought them through a Facebook ad.
“I don’t think I’ll buy anything that way again,” says Brome, an entrepreneur. “It’s sort of a free-for-all with companies. It’s not a platform that puts any checks or balances on bad behavior,” he said, referring to Facebook ads from suspicious companies.
If you’ve tried to buy something through online ads on Facebook or Instagram, or through a site such as Amazon, Google and Walmart, chances are you’ve encountered a mix of brands you’ve heard of and even more you haven’t. Between the reputable products and the counterfeits is a sea of mysterious companies selling goods of unknown origin and quality.
(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Online shopping has been on the rise for years but got a boost during the pandemic, generating $791.7 billion in sales in 2020 and making up 14 percent of all retail sales in the United States, according to the Census Bureau. E-commerce sales are expected to surpass $1 trillion in 2022, according to research firm eMarketer.
But one of the features that made buying online so appealing is also making it increasingly unusable: a glut of unknown and often inferior brands.
The burden falls on shoppers to tell the good from the bad — whether it’s party dresses, handheld metal detectors or collapsible roasting sticks for marshmallows. Some of the brands are genuine gets — a company offering quality products at lower prices or a real up-and-coming label you’re discovering for the first time. The rest are a mixed bag of hustles — either poorly cloned products or orders shipped directly from subpar overseas manufacturers.
These days, navigating Amazon, Walmart and Google’s maze of third-party sellers or judging hip-looking social media ads requires the same kinds of skills as identifying misinformation and conspiracy theories. Even with the best research, there’s often no clear answer to the question, what kind of product will I get?
Forcing online shoppers to become researchers
Most of us buying online already know how to look out for the basics — whether that’s bad graphic design, low prices that are too good to be true or poor reviews. But those signals are becoming outdated.
The advent of fast fashion and third-party sellers have made low price points not just common, but expected. And reviews on sites such as Amazon are regularly gamed by sellers flooding their pages with paid reviews. Shopify, a service for setting up easy online storefronts, lets almost anyone quickly whip up a professional-looking online shop.
So a shopper also has to look for subtle signs such as too many reviews that are overly positive or use repetitive language. Search for the origin of a product photo to make sure it’s not stolen or provided to multiple sellers by a factory.
“Normal consumers have not been educated to dig this deep,” said Saoud Khalifah, CEO of Fakespot, a browser tool that grades online brands based on signals like a suspicious number of positive reviews. Khalifah launched it after his own botched purchase from Amazon — a supplement that ended up being sawdust in a bottle.
Brome, the tank-top buyer, already saw some of the red flags. He ended up buying three shirts online: the two through the Facebook ad and one through Amazon, which he says was decent quality because he knew what to look for.
His shopping journey started where most of our online buys do: with a few Google searches. He typed in the keywords for what he wanted — a specific muscle shirt he’d seen around. Then he moved over to Amazon and waded through a list of nearly identical-looking shirts from big brands and companies he’d never heard of.
There are more than 100,000 results for “men’s tank tops” on Amazon, including a mix of recognizable names including Hanes, Jockey and Amazon’s Basics brand. However, the vast majority are from unrecognizable brands with names such as Papi, XIHUII and Magiftbox.
“It took a lot of work to dig through all the products on Amazon, to read the reviews and the FAQs,” says Brome. “It’s a skill.”
After that, the social media ads appeared, summoned by his Google and Amazon search terms, making their way through ad-targeting platforms. One Facebook ad was from a perfectly normal-looking company called Trinity Athletics, promising “luxe” tops for $30 apiece. They looked perfect, so Brome clicked.
If you look closely, there are signs Trinity Athletics isn’t what it says. Its Facebook page leads to a normal website that is powered by Shopify. But the domain for the site itself, trinityathleticsclub.com, was bought in November 2020 through a service that hides the identity of who purchased it. Images on the site all appear to be lifted from other websites, according to a reverse image search on Google Images. For example, the tank tops listed use the same generic image of a man with one sleeve of tattoos that has been used to sell similar shirts for years across the Internet, including on Alibaba and current Amazon listings.
Trinity Athletics didn’t reply to emails requesting comment over the past 10 days and there is no phone number on its site. The company has a return address listed in Corona, Calif., that appears to be a single-family home. Brome says he emailed with the company about returning his shirts and was in the process of trying to send them back.
The site does not appear to violate Shopify’s policies, though a Shopify spokeswoman would not say either way.
Facebook said the company didn’t violate its policies and noted that it can continue advertising.
“We closely monitor for misrepresented product details and negative customer feedback and take action on businesses, like disabling advertising or removing access to our commerce tools, to hold them accountable,” said Facebook spokeswoman Stephanie Chan in a statement.
What’s behind the flood of brands?
It’s not one single company responsible for the spread of inauthentic brands. The industry is held up by a tangled network of tech companies and services, with search engines, ad brokers, social media companies and e-commerce platforms all playing a part while making large amounts of money.
Unless the products are infringing on intellectual property or are a safety risk, they’re typically not violating any policies.
The brands you’ll find online represent a range of setups. Some Amazon sellers send their product to the company to stock and ship and a number are even being bought up by large firms. There are original manufacturers of legitimate products, skipping middlemen to sell similar quality offerings for less. Others are goods from secondary factories, making their own molds of popular products and using inferior materials. Sellers can be based anywhere in the world, buying goods from sites such as Alibaba and having products shipped directly to consumers without ever seeing it themselves.
Tech companies are vocal about their efforts to crack down on obvious counterfeit products. Amazon says it invested $700 million to fight fraud and abuse in 2020, and it uses a combination of artificial intelligence and human investigators to find scammers selling fake goods. But most efforts are directed at luxury goods or items protected by patents. The remaining products — just different enough, low-quality or churned out from the same place and rebranded — are largely left alone.
Shopify, which hosts many of these stores, said companies selling directly from suppliers are allowed on its platform. Low-quality products don’t necessarily violate its policies.
“Some merchants prefer to make every product they sell, some find a variety of products from other companies to curate, and others source products elsewhere and have them distributed directly by their suppliers. All of these approaches are different forms of entrepreneurship,” said Shopify spokeswoman Rebecca Feigelsohn.
There may be no incentive for companies to crack down on this gray area. Research firm Marketplace Pulse estimates Amazon Marketplace, an e-commerce platform that allows third-party sellers to sell goods on Amazon, accounted for $300 billion in sales in 2020, or 62 percent of total Amazon online sales. Walmart makes anywhere from 6 to 15 percent on each third-party sale through its marketplace. And advertising made up 98 percent of Facebook’s revenue last year, at $84 billion.
Amazon declined to comment.
Walmart spokeswoman Carrie McKnight said the store has teams that go through products to “help ensure items and sellers meet our high expectations.” Google, which links people to seller websites to make purchases, says results can rank lower if the offer itself seems low-quality, like with an unusual price point.
A real company lost in a sea of copies
The situation is as frustrating for companies making legitimate products as it is for shoppers. Just ask WaterRower, the 33-year old Rhode Island-based company. Started by a former national team rower turned engineer, it makes its distinct-looking wooden rowing machines in the United States.
A search for “wooden rower” on Amazon brings up nearly 200 results under at least 30 separate brands, and more than 100 results on Walmart. The vast majority have a specific, nearly identical look. Two long planks of wood, a black seat on the side, a squat water tank and a logo emblazoned on one side. Some brands buy directly from WaterRower, such as Ergatta, which adds Peloton-like classes and tracking, while others are respected competitors such as Life Fitness.
Then there’s the rest. At least three of the brands begin with “Mr.” — Mr. Captain, Mr. Rudolf and Mr. Right. One is just LINEN PURITY LLC. The category is a classic example of a niche product that has been flooded with confusing options including unknown manufacturers.
“They’re doing their best to look as close to the real thing as they can, and offer you a deal on it, so you may not be concerned when it doesn’t last as long,” said David Jones, the director of sales and marketing for WaterRower. The company has struggled to be the main search result for the product it designed. “I think there’s a market for similar products; it’s just a matter of being transparent about who you are.”
The company does the bulk of its manufacturing in Warren, R.I. While it still owns the name “WaterRower,” it no longer owns the intellectual property to cover the design of its signature product, and fighting copycats can rack up legal fees. That has created an opening for page after page of similar-looking, cheaper rowers on Google, Amazon and Walmart. A real WaterRower costs around $1,000, but alternatives can go for as little as $370.
Overwhelmed, some shoppers turn to other stores
For many shoppers it’s not just about the quality of products available but the overwhelming volume. Greg Prelich, a retired scientist in New Jersey, has struggled to shop for products like a new watch on Amazon and Google.
“When you look online, you essentially have the whole world you’re looking through, so you need to be able to narrow it down,” Prelich said. “But when you go to the actual stores there’s so little merchandise out there right now, it’s almost narrowed down too much.”
Like a growing number of shoppers, Prelich doesn’t trust online reviews and assumes they are manipulated in some way. Those review systems, which were designed to let real buyers share their experiences, have been rendered largely useless by paid review farms and sellers comfortable with gaming the system.
The lack of a review system around ads makes it doubly hard to judge those brands. Companies can delete negative comments from their social media accounts, and Instagram-worthy images are easy to come by. All of the confusion is pushing some shoppers back to stores that do the gatekeeping.
Arielle Haller-Silverstone runs a pair of consignment stores in New York City and the Hamptons called Ari’s Closet, and distrusts social media ads. She limits her online shopping to stores with more stringent quality control in place, like traditional retailers such as Nordstrom or the site Shopbop, which aggregates designer fashion. She knows what makes quality clothes, and doesn’t carry an item in her stores unless it’s a brand or designer she recognizes. She trusts in-person shopping even more these days, where there are details you could never see online.
“I look at the stitching, I look at the label,” Haller-Silverstone said. “The fabric, the feel. For me it’s all about the feel.”