“Can I tell you a really easy way to make money online?” asks Maddie, a doe-eyed 20-something, in a TikTok that’s been viewed over 1 million times. It is so easy, in fact, that making money “basically requires no skill at all” — just a laptop and a wifi connection.
Maddie is one of the many hustle-culture figures on the internet who has gained popularity by encouraging their followers to start a business, usually through a practice called drop shipping. All a person needs is an idea of what they’re going to sell, a website, and boom, they’ve got a potentially profitable side hustle that could make anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to a couple thousand per week. “We’re going to be drop shipping with Printed Mint,” Maddie goes on, referring to a print-on-demand company that creates customized products. “Don’t be afraid of that word.”
A few years ago, this disclaimer — that users shouldn’t “be afraid” of drop shipping — might not have been necessary. And several years before that, most people probably hadn’t ever heard of the term unless they worked in retail operations or supply chain management. Drop shipping is the method of shipping an order directly from a manufacturer to a customer’s home, without the retailer holding any inventory. This business model actually predates the internet by several decades and has become integral to how e-commerce operates.
Today, however, many consumers associate drop shipping with a breed of semi-shady e-commerce sellers, notorious for arbitraging wholesale items for profit and relying on the trappings of small businesses to gain shopper trust. These sellers only serve as the middleman between consumers and manufacturers, without seemingly providing any labor or value-add to the products they’re selling. As a result, they’re often regarded as scammers or fraudsters. Michigan’s attorney general has even issued a consumer alert on drop shipping, cautioning people to be wary of whom they buy from online.
Through years of commercialized conditioning, the average shopper has grown accustomed to buying things from online brands they’ve never heard of. People don’t often wonder about where their stuff comes from, how it’s made, or why it takes so long to arrive. Consider the “TikTok-made-me-buy-it” phenomenon, which turns a faddish gadget like a sunset lamp or LED lights into a coveted item for an online audience. This behavior creates a ripe environment for all kinds of drop shippers, from the “reputable” sellers to the novices hoping to earn a quick buck.
Drop shipping — and the forces that enable an individual to outsource, buy wholesale, rebrand, and sell overseas goods — …….