A Chinese consumer’s unfortunate encounter with a fake Apple store

August 1, 2011

On a recent reporting trip to the Chinese city of Kunming to scout out fake Apple stores, I met Wang, a 23-year-old woman who was furious at one particular retailer. As I interviewed her, Wang was nearly in tears as she recounted how she had spent a few months salary at a fake Apple store buying products she now doubts are real.

Wang’s experience is part of a bigger problem foreign brands face in the city, which are racing to reach the millions of potential customers in China’s burgeoning middle class.

On my visit to Kunming, I saw Nike and Adidas stores everywhere and it was hard to determine which stores were legitimate. On one particular road, there are two Nike stores that stood almost directly opposite each other. Both stores, incidentally, displayed the big trademarked “Swoosh.” I doubt that Nike would allow their resellers to be located so closely together for fear of market cannibalization. But, of course, these stories might not have been real Nike resellers.

A little further down on another road, there was a hole-in-the-wall “Walt Disney” store selling generic princess costumes and a “Toni and Guy” salon. That salon, as if trying to convince the passer-by that it was authentic, had the word “England’s” tacked onto the storefront.

Like many second and third-tier cities in China, Kunming has a rapidly growing middle class that is adjusting to rising disposable incomes. This is surely the lure for big foreign brands like Cartier, Zara and H&M, who all have official stores in the downtown area, and for counterfeiters as well.

While major consumer brands like Starbucks, Yum Brands’ KFC and McDonald’s have made second and third-tier cities a priority, many others, like Apple, have not. Which is why the much of the Chinese population is not familiar with the particular subtleties of Apple branding. In the case of the fake Apple store I saw, only experts could tell the difference: the elaborate detail someone went to copy the store layout, design — even the blue staff t-shirts — blew my mind.

In Shanghai or Beijing, these fake Apple stores wouldn’t cut it. Consumers in those cities are far more likely to check prices on the Internet before buying, and are far savvier.

Just 36 percent of China’s 1.2 billion citizens have access to the Internet. Only the web-trained and typically higher-educated Chinese shoppers will bother to check prices or compare retailers. The rest will just walk pass a store that looks legitimate and think it’s real.

The crooks are the ones exploiting the naivete of the Chinese consumer. Wang, who earns 1,000-3,000 yuan a month as an office worker, said she spent 14,000 yuan at the fake Apple Store to buy a Macbook Pro and an iPhone 3 of dubious origin.

Who is looking out for her?

The tragedy is the lack of enforcement, not just by China but by also foreign brands. Brands, like government officials, are usually reactive in helping and protecting the consumer. Apple should work to shut down unauthorized resellers, and make sure no one is leaking material to these China resellers to make their stores look authentic.

That could have saved Wang good deal of money and grief.

3 comments

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This is a very misleading and insincere article in the name of consumer protection. The example of Mrs. Wang is too far fetched to be real. The woman is a shopaholic, not a legitimate consumer. She would be the Chinese equivalent of black kids in the Ghetto who ere targeted by companies like Nike to spend their money on sports shoes or immense radio setups (the old Ghetto blasters not made by Nike). She is also a slave to brand names. The article goes without an author’s name and that suggests that it is an industry or government planted puff piece. Why didn’t you call her an old pensioner who lost her life savings or the money for the family house?

Consumer protection in this country is almost a thing of the past and doesn’t exist at all on the net. Computers are so cheap now they are being given at a steep discount to lure customers into high priced Internet service packages where the consumer has no real legal protection. Consumers aren’t protected from even fraudulent online gimmicks that proliferate on the net. I made a mistake with one once years ago and the credit card company sided with the fraud. It was a big change from their practices even a few years earlier.

If one doesn’t like the nearly automatic increase in prices, the consumer has only to try to find another provider if they can or drop the service. It is frequently bundled with telephone service. But since that computer is almost as important as a phone or TV it is difficult to drop. The consumer doesn’t sign a contract with Internet providers. Any involvement with them spells out very one-sided protections all favoring the provider. If there is any truth to the privacy protections that sites claim, it is beyond the ability of the consumer to prove it exists. And even the distinction between an Apple and PC is erroneous since so many of the components are interchangeable. The operating systems are different not the hardware. I stopped paying attention to brand names decades ago. I shop price and that doesn’t require being all that savvy either.

The author makes a fuss over dubious marketing and overlooks the fat profit potential that companies like Apple are really trying to preserve. It is disgusting that junk food makers like McDonalds can span the globe and are jealous of competition when in fact the rivals may conceivably offer better quality food than the brand name. But brand loyalty is akin to mass hypnosis and the rivals don’t think they stand a chance. I live in small town where McDonalds was a new comer about ten years ago. Prior to their establishment at the highway interchange – the town had a few small restaurants. All have close since then.

You probably won’t print this comment like two others I’ve sent and I’ll understand but I’ll know you’re a fraud as much as that Apple store: either the original or the pirated version.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

I am currently visiting Kunming and I’ve been to two of these stores already. They don’t have the cable I am looking for, cannot find me a price for it and don’t know how to order it in. If that doesn’t give the game away, I don’t know what does.

Firstly, does this woman think that her Macbook is fake? Does it turn on and run MacOSX? What about the “iPhone3″ (which doesn’t exist…do you mean 3G or 3GS maybe?)? Do either of the devices turn on? The stores are not legitimate Apple retail stores, but the products are real. Sure, the accessories are most likely poor quality rip-offs, but the iMacs, Macbooks, iPhone and iPads are all real.

Secondly, what the heck is this woman doing spending 14,000 yuan on Apple products if her wage is low. She could get an equally powerful PC for 5,000 yuan.

Lastly, 14,000 does not get you a Macbook and an iPhone3G….not at a legit Apple store, let alone a fake one.

I call BS on this article. Publish this comment. I dare you.

Posted by TheOpinionator | Report as abusive

[...] a second-tier city that wakes up around 9am and shuts down by 10pm, has fake Apple stores, fake Nike stores, and rip-off Ikeas. Until recently, everyone thought the Apple and Nike stores were real and paid [...]

This article reeks of sensationalism and inuendo as opposed to factual reporting. Please move it to the entertainment section where biased, opinionated, gossipy reporting is more acceptable.

Posted by seaforte03 | Report as abusive