[Article first published as The Great Chinese Apple Store Swindle on Blogcritics.]
Anyone who follows consumer tech can argue about what Apple really excels at and where their success comes from. But to me it’s one thing above all else. More than their technology and even more than their sales numbers (well sort of), what Steve Jobs’ company cares about most is the Apple brand and image. That iconic apple chunk that as evolved into their silver fruity visage since the days of Macintosh has become a beacon to Apple’s customers, even driving more serious fans to buy their products for no justification other than “Apple made it.”
That’s truth – I’ve known people and of people in the past that on more than one occasion would forego doing anything fun because they didn’t have any cash. They did however have a shiny MacBook Air. My little cousin wants an iPhone for no other reason than “Apples are cool.” She hasn’t the first damned clue about what it does aside from make calls. As much as I can’t stand hardcore Apple fanboys and fangirls though, they exist because the Cupertino King is just that damn good at managing his brand, and owning the customers’ sou... I mean creating the customer loyalty that goes with it.
They take great care in playing cloak and dagger to keep new products veiled in shadows and pushing the image that Apple stands for innovation, imagination and a sense of cool. As such, they monitor and control every aspect of that – from apps available the App Store to developers to swearing business partners to secrecy. So it would be fair to say that they treat, oh I don’t know, cheaply made knockoffs bearing the apple logo with disdain and lawyers, right? But what if the knock-off wasn’t just an iPad or iPhone, but an entire Apple Store?
That’s exactly what blogger BirdAbroad stumbled into near her home in Kunming, China. She mentions the influences of western culture taking hold there, with stores like H&M and fast food restaurants like KFC have been cropping up around that area. But an Apple Store in Kunming? Apple definitely has a Chinese presence, but in larger cities like Shanghai and Beijing. I’ve never even heard of Kunming before today, have you? It would be like a blogger in China writing about anywhere that's not New York, DC, Chicago, LA or Philadelphia. Her blog has a lot of pictures of the store, which does actually look like a legit Apple Store complete with legit Apple gear.
As she says, “They looked like Apple products. It looked like an Apple store. It had the classic Apple store winding staircase and weird upstairs sitting area. The employees were even wearing those blue t-shirts with the chunky Apple name tags around their necks.” But things still didn’t sit right with her – things like lower quality paintjobs and staircase materials raised her suspicions, along with the fact that Apple never prints the phrase “Apple Store” on their storefronts as this place had.
But it didn’t stop there of course. After some further investigation speaking with the staff, she found that they not only believed they worked for Apple, but were trained to “protect the brand,” meaning no one was allowed to take pictures. Apparently the Chinese words for “brand” and “fake store’s ass” are the same. Her final verdict – “A beautiful ripoff – a brilliant one – the best ripoff store we had ever seen (and we see them every day). “ She includes pictures of other knockoff stores just around the corner as well. None of them are this good.
The Wall Street Journal’s China Realtime Report was able to get in touch with one of the staff members of the store in question, who was under no impression that Apple was in charge of signing his checks. His statement was that “I just care that what I sell every day are authentic Apple products, and that our customers don’t come back to me to complain about the quality of the products.” He goes on to almost brag about how their store is one of the best around, even though they openly lie about any affiliation with Apple.
Apple has not commented as of yet, but I’m extremely curious to see how this is handled. Will they see this as a personal affront to the mighty fruit and lawyer up with some force? Or take the highroad and have them apply for authorized reseller status? With Apple Stores themselves being one of Apple’s golden arrows in their quiver of marketing tricks, my money’s on option #1. Remember the lost iPhone 4 that ended up in a fight with Gizmodo? When it comes to product secrecy and their brand, Apple doesn’t mess around.
STORY UPDATES 07/25/11: 2 of the stores found by BirdAbroad are being shut down by Chinese authorities. The store described as a "beautiful ripoff" is not one of them - according to Reuters, it is currently in the process of becoming an authorized Apple reseller.