Puzzling digital doppelgangers
Brand Twitter, Beanie Babies, pseudoarchaeologists, old podcasts, new colors and para-social fitness
Hi friends. Today is January 14, 2022.
And I'd like to tell you a story that begins with a lamp — though which lamp, I'm not entirely sure.
I know the lamp I purchased was called the "Evelyn & Zoe": a generic sort of floor light with a big drum shade and brass-plated base. I needed a cheapish office lamp, and — for $86 on Walmart.com — this one seemed pretty great.
But the lamp had a number of puzzling digital doppelgangers. On Nordstrom Rack, it sold under the brand name "Addison & Lane" and cost $110. On Macy’s, it was "Hudson & Canal" ($259), and at Homesquare, “Henn & Hart” ($92).
There are, in fact, versions of this lamp on at least a dozen retail sites, each using the same staged product photos and similar, uncanny, ampersand-conjoined brand names, like someone pulled words at random from a 2019 yearbook and a Magnolia Journal magazine.
Of course, if the past two years of online shopping have taught us anything, it’s that retail logistics (... and ownership and fulfillment) are vastly more convoluted than we could have guessed. But I couldn’t recall seeing anything quite like this collection of identical lamps, which seemed designed to give shoppers the appearance of choice, and then … failed so spectacularly to keep up appearances.
So earlier this month, I reached out to a company called Jungle Scout to figure out what’s going on. Jungle Scout provides market intelligence and analytics to third-party sellers on marketplaces like Amazon. These are all the same lamp, Jungle Scout confirmed, made in the same shop. Namely: Dongguan Jiahui Lighting Co Ltd in Guangdong, China, which supplies table lamps, floor lamps, pendants and lamp parts to buyers on six (!) continents.
Import records show that most of Dongguan Jiahui’s U.S.-destined products are brought in by a Florida company called Hudson & Canal. (TJ Maxx also buys lots of them.) Some the company sells under its own brand name, while others appear on retail websites under brand names like “Camden & Wells” and “Hailey Home.” As far as I can tell, they then all sit in the same cavernous warehouses until they’re shipped, direct and on-demand, to the unsuspecting home shopper.
In other words, the only difference between these lamps, besides where they’re sold, is how much they cost. My lamp didn’t even come in a Walmart or Evelyn & Zoe box.
Jungle Scout tells me this type of arrangement is common: Many third-party sellers on Amazon utilize similar business models. And during the supply chain crunch of the pandemic, white and private label goods — those generic lamps manufactured for someone(s) else to brand and sell — may have actually grown more popular. One professional association for contract manufacturers reported a 75% surge in inquiries about white label goods between March and September 2020. (Fwiw, that association is based in the U.K. Its U.S. equivalent didn't get back to me.)
Whatever the exact uptick, it certainly seems that white label lamps (… and TV stands and accent tables) are big business for Hudson & Canal. In job postings, the company calls itself a “team of metrics-driven, high-performing, e-commerce experts” bent on “disrupting the supply chain” for furniture retail. Since 2016, according to ImportGenius, they’ve imported more than 1,000 shipments of furniture — one of which included my little office lamp.
It is a nice lamp, by the way. But I’m really glad I didn’t pay the Macy’s price for it.
If you read anything this weekend
“After the Beanie Baby Bubble Burst,” by Emily Stewart in Vox. You don’t have to look hard to find parallels between Beanie Babies and NFTs: Both are often kinda hideous; both have attracted manic communities; and both have racked up mind-boggling valuations despite … little apparent utility. But maybe utility is beside the point. Maybe nothing has inherent worth! Pair this with the recent/related Vox podcast on reality to go down that little rabbit hole further.
“How the Rise of the Celebrity Instructor Transformed Our Relationship With Fitness,” by Jacqueline Kantor in The Ringer. Regular readers know I’m a ride-or-die Peloton cultist, so this is inherently and extremely my jam. But the observations here go well beyond fitness: social media, and the void made by a long and lonely pandemic, have transformed the relationships that all kinds of influencers have with their fans.
“‘Crypto Colonizers’ in Puerto Rico Try to Sell Locals on the Dream,” by Nitasha Tiku in The Washington Post. What do Frances Haughen, Gordon from The Mighty Ducks and a small flotilla of crypto-bros have in common? They’re all driving up home prices and enraging locals in Puerto Rico, drawn by tax benefits on the island.
“Can Gettr Become the Online Gathering Place for Trump’s GOP?,” by Clare Malone in The New Yorker. 2022 could be a make-or-break year for conservative alt-tech: It’s the first cycle in which Trump and several of his allies won’t have the mainstream megaphones they enjoyed in past elections. But a lot of these alternatives are not particularly good or, even after months online, particularly big. Turns out it’s not that fun to own the libs when no libs are there to see it happen!
“The Subversive Genius of Extremely Slow Email,” by Ian Bogost in The Atlantic. “The form and content of communications are tightly coupled. What one thinks to say, let alone manages to express, arises from a technology’s constraints and affordances.”
This is a way for advertisers to reach a huge combined audience of v. devoted and savvy subscribers … and a way for me to continue to justify the amount of time I spend on this. Kidding! (But seriously.) Here’s the gist:
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The college student behind Depths of Wikipedia. The high school student behind that viral omicron post. How the pandemic “supercharged” sprawl and why the most popular podcasts are 5+ years old. The rise of the internet pseudoarchaeologists. Behold the next millennial pink. “You put enough men together in a chatroom, they will try and build their own sovereign state.”
In defense of exclamation points (!). Against pay-it-forward drive-through chains. Redesigning Black hair in gaming and redefining “censorship” for the social media age. The struggles of operating a Cuban Airbnb. The first billion-view video. Few things on earth are sadder than the tweets of long-canceled TV shows. The most scathing book reviews of 2021. Another good reason to wear a mask. Last but not least: “The arc of Brand Twitter is absurd and it bends toward sales.”
That’s it for this week! Until the next one. Warmest virtual regards.