Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
China’s online fashion brand Shein is overtaking fast-fashion powerhouses Zara and H&M in sales and app downloads. Photo: Reuters

Chinese fast fashion e-tailer Shein takes on Zara and H&M and it’s winning – with more downloads, cheaper clothes and better choice

  • The price for a dress on Shein is around half that of Zara, and the Chinese online-only fashion retailer adds hundreds of new designs every week
  • With influencers promoting its clothes on social media, the Shein app has had more downloads than those of H&M and Zara combined

China’s Shein may be the biggest shopping website you’ve never heard of.

The fast-fashion player is encroaching on the territory of more established rivals like Zara and H&M. It has become the largest purely online fashion company in the world measured by sales of self-branded products, according to market research company Euromonitor.

Nanjing-based Shein, founded in 2008, is aiming squarely at the “Gen Z” social-media generation (those born in 1995 and afterwards), using influencers on Instagram and TikTok, and discount codes, to attract younger shoppers in an increasingly crowded fashion market.
Shein offers low-cost styles, uploading hundreds of new designs to its app every week. Photo: Shein

It offers low-cost styles, and uploads hundreds of new designs to its app every week. The price for a dress is around half that of Zara, according to a recent survey by financial services company Societe Generale.

“You can save money, which is important when buying clothes as the fashions change so quickly,” said Rebeca Rondon, a 23-year-old student in Valencia, Spain, whose Instagram page compares dozens of styles from Shein and Zara head-to-head.

China’s answer to Zara and H&M ready to take on the world

The Covid-19 pandemic has boosted online sales at retailers, giving online-only players like Shein, Britain’s Asos and Germany’s Zalando an edge over Zara and H&M, which have big city-centre stores.

In September, the Shein app saw 10.3 million downloads globally from Apple’s App Store and Google Play, data from Sensor Tower, a mobile app market intelligence firm, shows. In comparison, H&M’s app had about 2.5 million, and Zara’s 2 million.

To date, Shein has reached 229.4 million downloads. Photo: SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

To date, Shein has reached 229.4 million downloads, versus H&M’s 123.5 million and Zara’s 90.6 million, the data shows. In the week of September 27-October 3, Shein was the most downloaded shopping app globally on iPhones, according to analytics platform App Annie. It ranked in the top 10 in the United States, Brazil, Australia, Britain and Saudi Arabia.

Privately owned Shein does not disclose sales or other financial figures. The company did not respond to emails or phone calls. Zara owner Inditex and H&M declined to comment.

Although Shein is gaining more followers, it has limited visibility compared with the likes of Zara and H&M. It has no domestic presence in China, where online shoppers go to Alibaba’s Taobao and to Pinduoduo for clothes at bargain prices.

Meanwhile, some consumers say the quality of items can be variable and delivery times erratic. Alibaba is the owner of the South China Morning Post.

Jade Laurice at a Shein event in London. Shein uses influencers to attract younger shoppers in an increasingly crowded fashion market. Photo: Getty Images

Unlike Zara and H&M, which have detailed background on the sourcing of their clothing and the working conditions of employees on their websites and annual reports, Shein gives no details about the manufacture of its products.

Inditex revolutionised the fashion industry in the 1990s by responding quickly to trends and speeding designs to stores using factories close to its headquarters in Spain.

Shein also works with hundreds of factories in proximity to its headquarters in Nanjing, the capital of China’s eastern Jiangsu province, according to an industry source with knowledge of the company’s business practices.

China tightens scrutiny of social media e-commerce in new draft regulation

The company aims to get designs ready for shipping in three days, according to the source, who wanted to remain anonymous because of sensitive business practices.

Three days is a significant compression of Inditex’s lead time from drawing board to store, which is around three weeks, according to the Spanish company.


Nonetheless, Shein faces a tough task to make inroads in a crowded online market where both Asos and Zalando have reported surges in sales this year. One way Shein is looking to grab attention is though influencers and “brand ambassadors”.

“I have to promote the outfits on my social-media platforms,” says Laura Illanes, a 22-year-old US student. “They provide me with a discount code of 15 per cent off – I need to share that with my followers,” said Illanes, an athlete with 36,000 Instagram followers, who gets six free Shein items per month in return for promoting the clothes on her account.

Inditex and H&M have also reported big jumps in online sales, but that’s a minority proportion of their overall sales. Shares in both have fallen over 20 per cent since early February, which analysts have partly attributed to their big networks of stores.

“Zara is a legacy player which is going to be crushed by fast fashion 2.0,” George Yang, chief investment officer of Hong Kong-based fund Anatole Investment Management, told an investor conference in September, pointing to the rise of a “new breed” of online players from China.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Chinese fast-fashion site Shein takes on Zara and H&M – and is winning