Unique Product Descriptions & SEO: Is it a waste of time and effort?

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I'm sure we have all heard that changing the product description to something other than the manufacturers content is a best practice and how it does this, that and the other for rankings. I've read many articles on how Google frowns upon duplicate content and if you want to rank better you should write relevent and unique content for your customers.

Why is it then that a lot of the top ranking websites completely ignore this best practice yet still seem to rank 1 or 2 for that particular product or search term. It takes a lot of effort to rewrite a product and I'm not sure I even see a benefit.

When I add a product I give it a expanded title description, unique product description, readable URL that matches the title, image alt tags, meta description, optimise the image size and so on but I will more often than not get out ranked by a competitor because they have stronger backlinks or are an older business etc.

I feel like people give you these best practices but really it all comes down to backlinking. I understand that there are various ranking factors with different weights of importance but it seems like a redundant excercise to create meaningful content to help users when I should just focus on backlinking.

Even worse than this is are the high ranking websites with a rubbish user experience due to ads but still rank high. I feel newer website owners are being slightly misled by these best practice gurus.

Does anyone else bother writing unique content for products?