From fake fitbits to exploding golf balls, Red Points examines the most dangerous fake fitness products, and the perils of getting in shape on the cheap.
Thinking of getting fit for summer? You’re not alone, as 2017 continues to see a growth in the sports equipment market, driven by increased health awareness and e-commerce availability. But as the market enjoys success, counterfeit products will inevitably increase in presence, too, drawn by high sales of sportswear, exercise equipment and fitness technology. A 2015 report outlines that fake sports equipment costs EU manufacturers €500 million per year as well as directly and indirectly incurring a loss of over 8,000 jobs.
But while counterfeit handbags or shoes are often lacking in quality (and there is a real price to be paid for a fake wedding dress), it’s fair to say that most knock-off products won’t do any more damage than disappointment. The same cannot be said, however, for fake fitness products, which can be highly dangerous. Whilst it’s become relatively accepted that there are some counterfeit products you should never buy, such as climbing gear, many dangerous fake fitness products are continuing to sell. Consumer education should be the first step in this harmful trend, which is damaging to more than brand appeal.
So which products are the ones to watch out for? Red Points examines some of the most counterfeited fitness products, and the likelihood that they could cause an injury.
1. Golf Clubs
The Wall Street Journal describes counterfeting of golf merchandise as "a whopping business", evaluating that the counterfeit golf industry is worth around 10% of the legitimate global market worldwide. The report admits that fake golf equipment, which most commonly impacts clubs, is visually of a higher quality than in previous years, but that the interior structure of a club shows its cheap manufacturing method.
A US Golf anti-counterfeiting initiative was set up in 2004, and has worked alongside Chinese authorities since to seize millions of items. At a convention the group displayed counterfeit clubheads sawed in half, and as the WSJ reports, the clubs then revealed "the type of irregularities that impact performance: irregular interior walls, or supposedly hollow iron-head cavities that instead are solid steel.” PGA member Mike West warns golfers to beware of counterfeit clubs sold online, as besides the damage they inflict your drive, counterfeit clubs “can be dangerous to yourself or to the other players”. A good club will lessen the likelihood of golf-related injury, by improving your swing. But a counterfeit golf club is crafted from heavier metals, and will offset your swing to erratic result.
Indeed, a UK-based gang that sold counterfeit golf clubs on eBay for five years were only finally caught when an unhappy customer complained to a trading standards institute about the poor quality of the clubs. Between 2003 and 2008 the scheme sold clubs that cost around just €3 to manufacture, as well as golf balls that reportedly “exploded when hit”. The operation that sold under reputable trading names such as TaylorMade, Odyssey, and Callaway, shows how international brands can be affected in reputation by low-quality knock-offs.
From illegal knock-offs to Aldi imitations, Fitbits are among the most-imitated products in the fitness world, as you might expect from the popular-but-expensive wearable tech. The brand has apparently been hit hard by the trend, with reviews that outline how Fitbit’s reputation has been damaged by defective counterfeits. The brand has responded to counterfeit products with lawsuits suing multiple infringers, claiming for full damages as well as a full destruction of all products. A review cited in the filing states that the fake ‘Fitbit Flex’ purchased requires a “rubber band” around the charger in order to establish a connection, and even when charged “no longer tracks any steps”.
Useless, yes, but dangerous? Well, on a physical level there’s always a risk of heart problems from overexertion. Even Fitbits deliver inaccurate heart readings so counterfeit watches that are manufactured with cheaper materials will surely provide results with even less accuracy. But the real problem posed by counterfeit fitness watches is in technological vulnerability. An opinion piece by a cybersecurity expert outlines how fake wearables are often preloaded with malware, and in particular how fake smartwatches are being used to steal users’ personal information. In fact, the Chinese government has banned its soldiers from wearing all smartwatches, showing how the trend for Internet of Things products has introduced a huge security risk to all consumers, and to all brands a responsibility to evaluate and protect their internet-enabled products.
Any bike brand will tell you that counterfeiting is a real problem in the industry, costing legitimate manufacturers and retailers millions every year. Even retailers may go unaware in distribution, with agent wholesale sites that act as a go-between between Western buyers and illegitimate Far Eastern factories. This causes a combination of both genuine and fake goods within stores, causing further confusion for consumers.
And the damage that fake bikes and bike parts can inflict is significant. UK TV show ‘Fake Britain’ investigated counterfeit bike products, following a mountain biker who purchased a set of FSA carbon handlebars from e-commerce site eBay. The handlebars quickly snapped in three pieces, breaking the cyclist’s wrist in two places.
FSA report findings of around 2,000 counterfeit bike products a month online, and have taken steps to combat the problem, including an ultraviolet logo on genuine products so that retailers can easily detect fakes. But e-commerce again proves harder to tackle, as even if the consumer can detect a counterfeit, products may prove difficult to return with the anonymity and disposability of many illicit retailers. Brands can make use of takedown policies on e-commerce sites, in systematic shutdowns targeting multiple operations, but working on a case-by-case basis is incredible time-consuming. A good brand protection strategy makes use of industry expertise and a technological solution, in order to minimise the need for manual interaction.
4. TRX suspension
TRX suspension training gear works by suspending your body to use your own weight for a variety of strength-building exercises. Counterfeit suspension products sound like a bad idea, right? But e-commerce platforms are rife with ‘discounted’ TRX products, and the company specifies that it only sells on eBay and Amazon via official stores, and Alibaba not at all. The problem has become so great that last year Amazon filed its first-ever lawsuits against counterfeit sellers of TRX products.
Retailers are starting to recognise the gravity of the situation, and many have released guides on how to spot TRX counterfeits. The guides show how counterfeit carabiners can break easily, and stitching can be uneven and pull away. But online reviews detail how packing is often of a genuine appearance, so fitness amateurs may go unaware and incur a serious injury. Difficult-to-counterfeit packaging is a simple way to detect fakes, and brands are beginning to recognise this with scannable holograms and RFID tags.
As the most counterfeited item of 2016, footwear is of a top priority to anti-counterfeiting measures. The New York Times reports on the realities of the footwear counterfeiting industry, exposing it as a complex network of organised crime. The article details how counterfeiters frequently use forged importation documents to maintain an untraceable line of distribution between Far Eastern manufacturers, end users and Western retailers. Factories employ crafting specialists, who can replicate a design with excellent precision; as one declares, “the only way you can tell the difference between the real ones and ours is by the smell of the glue”.
Of course this cannot be said for all counterfeits, many of which are obviously of lower quality visually. Details will often be unrefined, and stitching uneven. But even if all counterfeits do not compromise on street cred, all come with a safety risk. Using cheaper materials and releasing products without meeting chemical regulations or undergoing safety checks makes an immense compromise on consumer welfare. It’s not surprising that there are safety fears over fake light-up trainers with inserted USB cables, but hidden dangers may pose even bigger risks. A 2012 seizure of 1,700 pairs of children’s shoes found them contaminated with over three times the legal limit of lead. Cheaply-made soles, too, can lead to foot, knee and back injuries, especially when the fake trainers undergo heavy use in fitness.
Nike is an example of a brand that does anti-counterfeiting right, with inclusion of subtle design features and tightly-guarded designs during release processes. However, the global footwear company Nike is the most counterfeited brand in the world today, implying that the war on counterfeits is a lost cause.
Indeed, counterfeiting has become a part of Chinese culture in shanzai, which refers to high-quality counterfeiting and a way of life for many craftspeople. But anti-counterfeiting measures are beginning to make a dent in the industry, and e-commerce as a tool can be manipulated as IP law becomes stronger internationally.
Globally, brands must take steps to preserve their well-earned reputations by investing in technologically-inclined solutions that work to combat the innovation of counterfeiting through refined expertise. A good brand protection strategy will push consumers to buy genuine by working with search engines to limit illicit channels, and in this preserve brand equity and maintain higher ground in measures against counterfeiting.