Take the company that made the Newitz poster, Home Comforts. Its Walmart.com profile does not inspire confidence. “Thank you for vising out store. Please buy with confidence,” it reads. “We are 100% old school in terms of ‘ the customer is always right’ - if you do not like something we will always take care of you. Your satisfactions is our number 1 Priority.”
Home Comforts lists its corporate address as a modest home in the Fairfax neighborhood of Los Angeles. My poster was sent from an office in Koreatown, close to or sharing space with a wholesale wig shop. It has a California business license that lists Aron Yakovlev as CEO and Dmitrijs Jakolevs as the former CEO of the company. (I’ve tried to contact Home Comforts through their seller profiles, several phone numbers, two email addresses, and LinkedIn, to no avail.)
The company’s “inventory”—on Amazon and Walmart.com—is enormous: more than 200,000 products on Amazon and more than 1 million on Walmart.com. Almost none of those have any reviews. Only three seem to be regularly purchased: a cast-iron coat hook, a two-pack of corn starch, and a faux-vintage laundry sign. (I contacted both Walmart and Amazon to ask if they vetted products, especially when they were uploaded in such tremendous volumes. Amazon declined to comment, and Walmart did not get back to me.)
While the company carries many different dollar-store-like products, the vast majority of what it “sells,” or at least offers for sale, is a never-ending assortment of posters, some image-only, many others featuring “famous quotes” like Newitz’s. While some are attributed to celebrities — Gandhi or Audrey Hepburn—many are from far-less-famous people, like the Maine politician Margaret Chase Smith or British paleontologist Mary Leakey.
There is a very reasonable explanation. Imagine you’re going to generate hundreds of thousands of posters with quotes on them: You need a quote database. Newitz’s quote (which appears in a decade-old online bio) is basically nowhere on the internet anymore. In fact, it exists only in three places: the bio page where it originated, a bunch of quote sites, which appear to trace their text back to brainyquote.com, and a certain poster sold by Home Comforts on Walmart.com. Though I cannot claim to have checked the hundreds of thousands of posters, every time I spot-checked a quote, I found it on brainyquote.com.
Meanwhile, all the photos I checked appeared to originate on Pixabay, which claims to provide royalty-free imagery as uploaded by its users. It would be very easy to scrape both sites, associate images with quotes, and bulk upload them as proto-posters to Amazon and Walmart, which the marketplaces allow. If a poster sells, you can print it on demand and mail it out, pocketing a decent chunk of the $21.68 price (with shipping and handling). If it doesn’t, you do ... nothing. Home Comforts has hundreds of thousands of lures in the water, just waiting for a bite. It recalls a similar case of software-generated phone cases offered by another vendor.