E-Commerce and the Influencer Economy

Apr 22, 2024
E-Commerce and the Influencer Economy
How internet shopping became choked with junk.

People are bombarded online each day with ads for newfangled products that promise dramatic life improvements. Modish tumblers. Sleek pans. Miraculous cleaning solutions. Overblown air purifiers. Just click this link and — voilà! Productivity. Happiness. Nirvana.

Don’t buy it.

Wirecutter, The Times’s product recommendation service, tests many of the wares that clog Americans’ social media feeds. And while our testers do like some, these products are often built on empty promises. In today’s newsletter, I’ll explain how e-commerce, a $6 trillion global industry, became choked with junk.

Paid to sell
Online shopping can expose people to a greasy influencer economy. Influencers often join affiliate-revenue networks, such as Amazon’s. When an influencer’s follower clicks a link and buys something, the influencer makes money. That’s why people on your social media feed are crowing about their 10 favorite Amazon finds or talking about how an expensive gizmo has changed their life.

Many influencers have another incentive: Brands pay them to hawk stuff. Some people with large followings make deals for tens of thousands of dollars per post. Then, when enough people like or share a post, TikTok, Instagram and YouTube algorithms push it to more people. The result is a blizzard of gadgets.

Consider these spin scrubbers, pitched online as the solution to all of your cleaning woes. “In videos, these devices churn up rings of soap suds, implying they are lifting away all the filth beneath them,” writes Ellen Airhart, Wirecutter’s cleaning expert.

In reality, they’re the worst cleaning tools we’ve ever tested. Ellen spent six hours trying to scour a soap-scum-covered shower and a toothpaste-crusted sink with two spin scrubbers popular on TikTok. They splattered water everywhere and often cost upward of $50. Instead, Ellen recommends a humble $1 sponge.

Products making the rounds on social media are often manufactured by small companies and come with unhelpful guidance or lousy warranties. This is true of the Pipersong Meditation Chair, hailed as the solution for restless sitters, thanks to its rotating footstool.

Well, I tested it. And as I was pretzeling myself into the thing, which lacks solid back support or armrests, I knew most people wouldn’t find it to be worth the $400-plus price tag.

Even viral products from reliable brands can be mediocre. Stanley tumblers are in vogue. And yet, they spill. A lot. The leaks haven’t stopped 10 million units from being sold since 2020. Hordes of people stampeded Target to nab one in a recent trending color.

Avoid getting duped

As an editor at Wirecutter, I take my job of testing and recommending products seriously. I never want anyone to spend their hard-earned money on garbage. Here’s how to avoid being hoodwinked:

Search the product’s name on Instagram, TikTok, YouTube or Reddit. Are the influencers all saying the same thing? And does what they’re saying sound like marketing copy?

Look for the hashtags #ad, #sponsored or #partner on the post to see if the recommender is being compensated by the brand. If the influencer doesn’t disclose that arrangement, the Federal Trade Commission could issue a fine.

Check influencers’ bios or LinkedIn profiles for credentials. Do they show a background in this area? Have the creators shown their testing methods? Do they even have testing methods?

Read one-star Amazon reviews to see if any consistent flaws jump out.

See if a trusted person or publication also recommends this product.

Not all influencers are scurrilous peddlers. Some creators use their expertise to vet products and give reliable advice. But it’s important to spot the difference.

There are so many wonderful, truly helpful and well-made buy-it-for-life products, such as the sturdy Lodge cast-iron pan and Darn Tough hiking socks, which come with a lifetime warranty. Don’t waste your time and money on overhyped trends.

More about Wirecutter: Our journalists have no financial relationship with the companies that make or sell the products that they review. They instead use an exhaustive testing process to choose the products they recommend. After that, Wirecutter’s commerce team may negotiate fees with the affiliate-revenue networks.

Source: nytimes