How dropshipping sites are hurting small businesses

This Christmas, more so than ever, small businesses are up against it to survive.

Despite the government announcing a selection of self-employment and business grants, many new business owners fell through the cracks, finding themselves eligible for nothing with their business in its infancy.

For many young creatives, this problem sits alongside another issue: finding their designs and imagery copied and their prices dramatically slashed on dropshipping websites, including the likes of AliExpress and Wish.com.

While dropshipping is a relatively new phenomenon, sites that facilitate the process have become household names thanks to viral videos of buyers left disappointed when their cheap deal turned out to be too good to be true.

Dropshipping invites entrepreneurs to sell products without having to buy an initial amount of stock, which is then shipped directly from the third party seller to a customer.

These websites work like an online marketplace, allowing wholesalers to list incredibly cheap products that can be then sent directly to a consumer – the perfect stomping ground for a dropshipping entrepreneur.

This process was pretty unknown to Martha, a 20-year-old jewellery business owner based in Leeds. Trading under the name Faeriebox, Martha creates affordable handmade pieces of jewellery for her young, fairy obsessed customer base.

Around a month ago, one of her customer’s noticed her best selling product, a belt chain dotted with mushroom charms, being sold for just over $3 on AliExpress.

Not only was the product a direct copy of Martha’s design, the AliExpress listing used the same picture as the one on her business’ Instagram, a picture taken of Martha, in her bedroom.

‘I’m such a small business and so I never expected it to happen to me,’ Martha tells Metro.co.uk. ‘It wound me up so much because I haven’t just made that product, I’ve also created the concept, I take the photos, I edit them, I upload them – it all takes an incredible amount of time.’

Martha also pays out of her own pocket to use targeted ads on Instagram, a practice which she thinks has lead directly to this issue.

‘I’m paying to promote my products and to get a better reach, which means more people will see my jewellery, and I believe it’s through this that people are seeing them and copying my designs – it’s so disheartening,’ she explains.

Bristol-based fashion designer Jaz found herself in the exact same position earlier this year.

Her business, Jazzygarms, sells quirky festival and rave attire, designed and created by Jaz with each piece made to order.

Much like Martha, Jaz, 21, received a message from a customer featuring a screenshot of one of her bestselling products, a pair of butterfly printed flared trousers, on AliExpress.

When she investigated the issue herself, she found around 30 or 40 listings selling a copy of her product for around $9, considerably cheaper than her RRP of £55.

‘I just completely panicked,’ she tells us. ‘I was outraged because I’m such a small business, I don’t have that many orders and somehow a factory was mass producing the flares that I’d designed.’

Again, these listings all featured images taken by her, of the trousers modelled by herself and her friend.

She immediately messaged various sellers to inform them that they were using her intellectual property without her consent. Jaz said: ‘Loads of sellers took their listings down which was great, but some of the smaller suppliers just didn’t care and blocked me straight away.’

While both Martha and Jaz were horrified to find their designs copied and resold, both of them knew that without patented designs, they didn’t have much of a legal leg to stand on in terms of the copycat products. The use of their images, however, was a different matter entirely.

Giles Parsons, an expert in intellectual property and copyright law at Browne Jacobson, agrees that without legally trademarking their styles, the girls can’t do much to combat people stealing their designs. However, he goes on to tell us, ‘if you take a photograph then you get copyright of that photograph – the photograph is an artistic work.’

Neither Martha or Jaz were in a financial position to seek legal advice when they discovered their products on AliExpress, an inevitability for most young designers. But Giles goes on to explain that it’s a lot simpler than you’d expect to get these listings removed.

‘If you have a start-up business, you need to have some understand of intellectual property law and you need to have some understanding in how to fill in the takedown procedure forms on these websites,’ he notes.

When approached for comment, AliExpress said: ‘We take intellectual property rights protection very seriously and prohibit the listing of counterfeit items on our platform.

‘We have clear policies in place, as well as technology to monitor proactively and we take action to remove listings which are found to be in violation of policy.

‘We will continue to take action against third-party sellers on our platform who violate our marketplace terms and conditions.’

But for Martha and Jaz, these solutions have already turned out to be flawed.

Martha went online to report multiple listings that featured her images, only for them to pop up again days later, while Jaz has already spotted eagle eyed dropshippers marketing knock-off versions of her trousers on Depop, reselling them for just £25.

For Jaz, the primary issue is the sustainability element.

‘I make everything from scratch, to order,’ she tells us. ‘I plant a tree for every order we get, which helps to offset the carbon that’s emitted from the production of the fabric. That $3 pair of trousers was probably made by workers on a low wage, with little thought behind the sustainability of it.’

Amid the financial struggles of the Covid-19 pandemic, having to fight online dropshipping companies is an uphill battle that small businesses are struggling to juggle.

For Martha, who uses her business to support her three-year-old daughter, she implores potential customers to shop locally for their Christmas presents.

‘When you buy from a small business, you don’t just get the product you ordered,’ says Martha. ‘You often get free stuff, stickers or art, always nicely packaged.

‘But you’re also paying into someone’s lifestyle – a £15 sale helps me to buy something for my little family or buy a meal for that evening. I notice every single sale, I notice it and it makes me feel better, makes everything feel worthwhile.’

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