In a small street in Chipilo, in the Mexican state of Puebla, rows of dresses, accessories, leggings, and bodysuits are neatly placed on the walls of a store run by Alejandra Précoma and her daughter Fátima. Though the store looks a bit like a thrift shop, all of the clothing on sale is brand-new, purchased from the Chinese fast fashion e-tailer Shein, a brand which also features in the name of the Précomas’ brick-and-mortar store: Shein Chipilo.
“We set up shop about a year ago and we’re getting there and doing quite well, thank God,” Précoma told Rest of World.
Précoma is not alone: all over Mexico, particularly in working-class areas, entrepreneurs are capitalizing on Shein’s cult-like following in the country, despite the company not having any official, permanent physical stores. They have built a network of shops dedicated to bulk buying, warehousing, and selling Shein products. By gaming a competitive fast fashion e-commerce industry that has put traditional retailers out of business worldwide, Mexico’s Shein boutiques are capitalizing on the lack of trust in digital businesses and low connectivity rates in large parts of the country. Four Shein boutique in-store customers in the states of Puebla and Oaxaca told Rest of World why they prefer the in-store experience, even with the hassle of adding an extra step to an already streamlined delivery service — when in doubt about a particular item, or when having to deal with issues with a purchase, they all preferred to deal with a human rather than a faceless app.
Mexico has an internet penetration rate of around 75%, but digital shoppers only account for about 9% of the country’s formal retail purchases, according to the Mexican Association of Online Sales. The same study by the same organization suggests that the main reason Mexican shoppers are hesitant to buy online is for fear of being scammed when they make a digital purchase. So, despite the fact that e-commerce juggernauts like Amazon and MercadoLibre consider Mexico to be a priority market, low trust, the dominance of cash, and lagging last-mile delivery logistics have contributed to poor online sales.
“These women are leveraging the digital success of a brand like Shein [coupled with] the mistrust that still surrounds digital transactions in Mexico,” Tania Honorat, a social researcher from Bitácora Social, a research center focused on societies and business, told Rest of World. “This business model bridges the digital gap because it offers access to a popular brand like Shein, which operates fully as an e-commerce company.”
Women like the Précomas act as intermediaries, accumulating customers to build large enough discounts through bulk orders of between 50 to 100 items. Hellen Sandon, the owner of Shein Boutique by Hellen Sandon, located in Cuautlancingo, less than 20 kilometers from Chipilo, is careful to keep the original tags from the e-commerce site on the items she sells. She also attaches small how-to guides on each one to inform her customers about how to place orders through her: Select any item on the Shein app or website, send her the link through WhatsApp, make a 50% advance payment, and wait 15 to 21 days for the order to arrive. There’s no shipping fee and pick-ups are exclusively at the salon.
Though boutique owners wouldn’t say how much of a profit this practice has resulted in, customers experienced in both the app’s and the stores’ dynamics estimated that boutiques can end up with almost a 60% profit. “If your order on the app is larger than 1,000 pesos, you get free standard shipping. These women gather, say, 300 orders of 200 pesos each. That’s an average of 60,000 pesos that easily covers the cost of express shipping, which is 370 pesos,” Coral Guarneros, a seasoned Shein customer from Puebla, told Rest of World. “If they shop wholesale at a discount of 40, 50 or 60% but sell at the same price shown on the app, they end up making huge profits.”
Both Sandon and the Précomas’ boutiques offer the same prices that users might find on the official app. The way they make a profit is by making the most out of the gamified discount system Shein offers its online customers. “The more items you buy on Shein, the better discounts you get and the more points you earn to exchange for other discounts,” Guarneros said.
While they can be found in almost every Mexican state, unofficial Shein boutiques are most common in low-density urban areas or places in the lower income brackets. There are at least five such boutiques in Ixtapaluca, a municipality in the State of Mexico, where the average monthly income is 3,940 pesos (about $198) — about half of the average national minimum wage. Boutiques have also proliferated in Guerrero and Oaxaca, which, alongside Puebla, are three of the poorest states in the country. They also have some of the lowest internet connectivity rates in Mexico.
Shein sometimes sets up temporary pop-up stores globally as a marketing or engagement strategy. Mexico is one of the few countries worldwide where these pop-up stores have made repeat appearances over the past couple of years, showing how much of a priority the country is for the company: at least four times — two in 2021, and two so far this year. “Mexico is one of our most important foreign markets, and we see that the appreciation for our products is growing in the country,” said Simon Shan, market director for Shein in Mexico, in a press release in May 2021.
Shortly before publication, Shein replied to Rest of World stating that "we recommend that consumers carefully identify authenticity and assess transaction risks when purchasing goods with Shein's logo outside official channels. In order to protect customers' sales rights and experience, we recommend consumers to buy our products from SHEIN official channels.” The company requested the statement be attributed to a generic Shein spokesperson. (The company’s former public relations firm in Mexico, Another Company, told Rest of World that there has been no official Shein spokesperson in the country since 2021.)
A close relationship with their customers is far more important to these boutique entrepreneurs than with Shein itself. This is because, across the country, a sizable number of the women were previously sales representatives for traditional brands like Avon or Tupperware. Over the years, they built networks of trust and friendship with their local clients — more or less the same networks that they leverage now when hawking Shein goods.
“There are lots of advantages to using our ordering service,” Alejandra Précoma, who manages the Shein boutique in Chipilo, told Rest of World. One of the perks is that she takes customers’ measurements before they choose a size and uses items she has in stock as a reference for the fabrics and fittings.
Meanwhile, her daughter Fátima manages the online logistics, receiving customers’ Shein links and payments, and placing orders every Monday and Wednesday. “If, for some reason, the package gets delayed — we had our entire order stopped at the airport a few weeks ago — we’re the ones that deal with that. We’re happy to manage that so our customer doesn’t have to,” said the senior Précoma.
Shein boutique customers are looking for a face to trust. “Originally, I didn’t trust Shein because I couldn’t believe it was so cheap,” Marijose Burgoa, an odontologist from Oaxaca, told Rest of World. After placing and receiving her first order — a $2 phone case — at a Shein boutique, after a friend recommended it to her, she became a recurring customer. She’s placed five orders since, despite the long waiting times — one of her packages once took about 50 days to arrive — and the need for her to physically pick up the items at the boutique.
Burgoa doesn’t know the name of the person who places her Shein orders at her local boutique in Oaxaca, but the risk her friends took with the store has overcome any sense of distrust: “What made me trust them is that my friend had already ordered through them — a bridesmaid’s dress.” Trust can hardly get any more deeply rooted than that.