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