A story of counterfeiting, told through a tale of a pair of fake shoes that travelled the world.
It was a grey day in rural Putian, China, not that anybody had noticed. The expansive, artificially-lit factory was lined with workers mechanically stitching away under strip lighting. The fake shoe capital of China, the workers here are used to making Nike trainers, although they hadn’t been officially contracted by the company in a few months.
One pair of shoes, now just beginning to emerge, would travel particularly far. Shiny black with thick soles, they are now placed onto a moving conveyor belt, and they hum along, soon finding themselves in the dark.
The next time the shoes see light it’s late evening, and one is being picked out from a box, filled with identical sneakers bearing the same white swoosh. These shoes are modelled after one of the most sought-after sneakers of the year. They are now examined by a man in his thirties, who carefully turns the shoe over, and rubs at the tongue. “Indistinguishable from the original”, a nearby salesman can be heard boasting, and the man nods his assent, although the shoes don’t fool him.
He is an amao, a businessman whose enterprise is built upon selling fake sneakers, and the design flaws are apparent to his keen eye. The precision in the embroidered details are ever-so-slightly off, the spaces between the lettering not quite uniform; but these details are undetectable to an amateur. The shoe is replaced, the box closed, and soon the busy nighttime Anfu market can be heard; people chattering away in the marketplace over takeaway food and the roar of amao motorbikes. Our own amao now easily straps the box onto a bike waiting nearby, and zooms away into the waning night.
At home, yawning and keen to make a quick sale, the amao takes a few pictures of the shoes, instantly uploading them online. His Taobao listing is soon found by an American woman who sells knock-off designer goods, and the photos earn a smug smile. She is keen to expand into the replica shoe market, which is lucrative thanks to the high resale prices of in-demand sneaker designs.
The woman launched her business after a work trip in Beijing, where she was fascinated by the high-quality knock-offs. That trip she bought enough handbags to double her monthly income and give herself a Birkin besides. After discovering Taobao and the ease of delivery and discretion that e-commerce offers, the woman went full-time with her newfound enterprise. She now drums her manicured fingernails on her keyboard before selecting a quantity of 25 pairs at $30 each, and pressing ‘order’.
Twelve days later later the shoes reach the busy Seattle port. A burly customs official narrows his eyes at the boxes, divided into multiple packages to divert attention and escape duty charges. He takes in the box quality, the yellowing tape, and checks the importation document. Origin of Package: Tsuen Wan, Hong Kong. Thinking of lunch, he shrugs and moves on.
The shoes never reach the woman: instead, they are delivered to a logistics company, who package the shoes individually and send them on to be ‘Fulfilled by Amazon’, unstickered so that they are interchangeable with the genuine model they are based on, so any negative reviews received will go straight to the brand, and not the individual seller.
At the fulfillment centre the shoes are scanned in, and moved to a shelf by a bored employee. A day later, one pair is ordered from Amazon by a New York-based avid sports shoe enthusiast. He can’t believe his luck at finding the shoes online and for their original retail price of $200.
When the shoes arrive he is delighted - until he tries them on. Crafted from cheap materials, the fakes are agonising to walk in. After some research, he identifies the shoes as fake, and resolves to return them, placing them in his cupboard. There they wait for 31 days before he discovers them, just missing the Amazon return period.
He resells them on eBay, but can’t bear to let other sneaker fans down by professing authenticity. ‘FAKE but high-quality appearance’, his listing reads, and the shoes are sold again at $100. They are bought by a tired middle-aged man, making a rush purchase for his son’s birthday. Duly the size 9 shoes arrive, one size too small. Sighing, the man adds them to the yard sale pile.
At the yard sale the shoes are picked up by a 15-year-old boy, with his uncle who he is visiting. The boy shows them to his uncle hopefully. “How much?” His uncle asks the seller, who is desperate to make a sale after a slow day. He hesitates. “70 dollars”, he says, adding that “they’re brand new”: The boy’s uncle squints. “I’ll give you 50.” The seller sighs, and holds out his hand.
A week later, the boy is back home in Frankfurt, Germany. In the city one day, his friend suggests going into the Nike store. As the boy steps inside, his friend rushes off to look at the latest release. A store assistant with a Nike name tag introducing herself as ‘TARA’ notices the boy and smiles. “Nice shoes.”
The counterfeit goods industry in 2013 was valued at almost $461 billion, and today shoes are the most counterfeited product. The illicit industry, supported by the global rise of e-commerce, causes irreparable damage to the brands it imitates, as fake products are commonly supposed to be genuine. Aside from the financial loss suffered by the company, its reputation and brand equity now rests on an inferior product, often crafted inexpertly and without attention to safety standards. In addition to this, exclusivity and thus demand is lost through unconstrained levels of product, which particularly hurts luxury brands. To learn about counterfeiting and its various channels is vital in protecting your brand and products online, and working towards a brand protection solution.