On July 20, an American living in the Chinese city of Kunming published a post on her personal blog that would become an Internet sensation in a matter of hours: a series of photos documenting elaborate fake Apple stores she'd discovered. As the blogger wrote three days after the original post, "Reuters is claiming that the story has been been picked up by nearly 1,000 media outlets--and I can tell you that I have personally been contacted by every major news source in the U.S. and Europe, included the AP, AFP, CNN, BBC, ABC, NBC, and other similarly acronymed outfits." Reporters scrambled to speak with employees at the fake stores while furious customers demanded refunds. Chinese authorities even inspected around 300 shops in Kunming in response to the blog post, shuttering two ripoff Apple stores for not having official business permits (curiously, there was no mention of copyright violations).
Almost two weeks later, the craze over fake Western stores in China is still spreading, with reporters turning up more examples of blatant brand-copying. Analysts are parsing the larger meaning of the episode--highlighting everything from fundamental piracy problems to lessons for Apple to insights on the "power of design." In an article today on how Chinese counterfeiters are increasingly pirating entire Western retail outlets, Reuters points to the 11 Furniture store in Kunming, which aims to "hijack the Ikea experience."
[11 Furniture] copies Ikea's blue and yellow color scheme, mock-up rooms, miniature pencils, signage and even its rocking chair designs. Its cafeteria-style restaurant, complete with minimalist wooden tables, has a familiar look, although the menu features Chinese-style braised minced pork and eggs instead of Ikea's Swedish meatballs and salmon.
PC Magazine has found another fake Apple store in Chengdu and USA Today brings other ripoffs to our attention, including a fake Abercrombie & Fitch store in the southern city of Zhongshan and Starbucks, KFC, and McDonald's lookalikes throughout the country. "A major obstacle is China's shanzhai culture, whereby some Chinese delight in making cheap imitations, sometimes in parody, of expensive, famous brands," the paper writes. In perhaps the most surreal sign that things are getting out of control, the blog M.I.C. Gadget reported that a Chinese man had asked employees at a real Apple store in Shanghai to repair his fake MacBook Air.
In a separate blog post today on a trip to Kunming to "scout out fake Apple stores," a Reuters reporter recalls meeting a Chinese woman who "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" (Chinese authorities and fake Apple store employees have asserted that the products sold in the counterfeit stores are authentic). The journalist evaluates Kunming's entire retail experience with skepticism, noting, "I saw Nike and Adidas stores everywhere and it was hard to determine which stores were legitimate." Why does Kunming appear to be ground zero for counterfeiting? "Like many second and third-tier cities in China, Kunming has a rapidly growing middle class that is adjusting to rising disposable incomes," the reporter explains. "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."
For a more visual reflection on the fake Apple store phenomenon, check out this animation from Next Media Animation:
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.