Caveat emptor: China’s ‘personal shopping services’ may get you a quality fake, not a quality brand

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 June, 2015, 1:04pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 June, 2015, 7:14pm

Personal shopping services offering to help buy designer goods at lower prices have mushroomed on popular messaging app WeChat in China, but users would do well to heed the time-honoured Latin phrase caveat emptor: let the buyer beware.

According to an article by Chinese online news portal Sina Tech, often goods sold to customers are counterfeits produced on an industrial scale in the country. The article, based on conversations with customers and suppliers, did not give details or statistics on the amount of fake goods sold through personal shopping services.

Personal shoppers, once a feature of online market places like Taobao, either list goods for purchase on WeChat online stores or post photos of the items via the app’s Moments feature, which allows users to share text, photo or video updates with their contacts.

Buyers then contact the shoppers directly to place orders and arrange payment. The shoppers charge a nominal fee, usually a percentage of the product’s cost, for their services.

Others catering to customers in China say they are students studying in Europe, the USA or Britain and can offer goods at a lower price than items sold in stores in China, which are stiffly taxed.  

In a report on counterfeit goods last year, Sina Tech said some vendors claim the items are factory extras, while others pass them off as seconds that have failed quality inspections. However, these products are high-quality replicas that customers may not be able to tell apart from the genuine article, the report said.

In its latest article, Sina Tech said forged receipts can also be provided to try and convince customers the products are genuine.

“If a customer lodges a complaint that their product is a fake, we will refund them 10 or 20 per cent of their payment. It’s a hassle to return the goods via international shipping, so customers often just accept the refund,” a personal shopper named Miao, who deals in counterfeit products, told Sina Tech.

“The Louis Vuitton bags, Ray Ban glasses, Nike shoes and Tiffany products that we sell, we tell customers that these are seconds from the factory, there is definitely no quality problem,” Miao said.

Counterfeiting has long been a problem that plagues China’s retail industry, and the country has consistently been named the biggest source of fake goods in statistics from overseas governments and in independent reports.

E-commerce giant Alibaba, which operates the Taobao online marketplace, became embroiled in the issue earlier this year after a US industry group publicly accused it of tolerating fake products on Taobao, while China’s commerce regulator published a report saying the site sold fake and substandard goods.  

Alibaba CEO Jack Ma responded by saying he has 2,000 employees working full-time to take down counterfeit listings on the group’s e-commerce platforms, though he acknowledged that it will take some time before Alibaba is able to eradicate fakes.

The International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition, a US-based non-profit group, projected that the value of global trade in counterfeit goods in 2015 would reach US$1.77 trillion.