In this post we will take a closer look at grey market goods and China. First we will consider what grey market goods are and why manufacturers get so worked up about them and then we will look at how China regulates grey market goods.
What are grey market goods, and why do they matter?
Grey market goods are authentic goods sold by unauthorized means. Unauthorized does not necessarily mean illegal; it simply means the goods are coming from someone other than (1) the original manufacturer or (2) a third party to whom the manufacturer has granted permission to resell the goods.
E-commerce has made all manner of grey market goods readily available. When I purchase Gillette razor blades on Amazon for delivery in the United States, the cheapest sellers are all offering grey market blades packaged for sale overseas (typically, Asia, Eastern Europe or South America). Although it’s unclear if these blades are exactly the same as what I would buy at a drugstore in the U.S., the price difference is significant enough that I’m willing to take the chance. And that’s just one example. Any product that has a significant difference in price or availability across different countries is likely to be sold on the grey market. And the flow of goods could go in any direction; it just depends on price and the demand. As China’s consumer class has grown in strength, so has the market for grey market goods. Products as disparate as Apple’s iPhone and Pfizer’s Viagra did significant business in China as grey market goods before they were officially available there.
Grey market goods are hardly a creation of the Internet, though.
A Vancouver, BC man named Michael Hallatt grew tired of waiting for Trader Joe’s to come to Canada, and since 2012 he has operated a store in Vancouver called Pirate Joe’s that stocks nothing but goods bought at Trader Joe’s stores in Washington State. All of the goods are purchased at retail prices in Washington and then marked up for sale in Canada. Trader Joe’s has been trying to shut Hallatt down for years, and has sued him for trademark infringement, unfair competition, false designation of origin, and false advertising.
Two weeks ago Pirate Joe’s announced it was closing its doors, which would have made the lawsuit moot, but at the end of last week Hallatt reversed course and announced on the PJ’s website that he was back in business. What makes Pirate Joe’s story interesting for IP attorneys is how it calls into question the limits of grey market sales. Hallatt certainly seems to enjoy tweaking Trader Joe’s and skirting the edge of the doctrine, but as the Freakonomics blog pointed out in 2013, reselling Trader Joe’s goods is no different than reselling goods on eBay or at a yard sale. The case is still pending.
In another well-known story, Costco purchased large quantities of Omega Seamaster watches from an authorized reseller in Europe, then resold them in the U.S. as grey market goods. Because the prices in Europe were so much cheaper than the retail prices in the U.S., Costco was able to add its usual markup and still price the watches at a substantial discount. Omega sued, but after a protracted battle, Costco prevailed in 2015.
It may be self-evident that the reason grey market goods exist is because there’s a market for them: grey market goods are either cheaper than the goods available through standard channels (e.g., the Omega watches at Costco and the Gillette razor blades on Amazon) or they are simply unavailable through standard channels (e.g., the goods at Pirate Joe’s). A reasonable argument can be made that grey market goods are in fact good for many manufacturers, because they increase brand recognition and product loyalty. And profits! All of these products have been sold by the manufacturer at a price (if not a use) they deemed acceptable.
Nonetheless, grey market goods are often decried by original manufacturers for reasons including the following:
1. Grey market goods are often difficult to distinguish from counterfeit goods, which harms the reputation of the brand and the manufacturer.
2. Grey market goods are often customized for the particular market for which they are made, and are unsuitable for use in other markets. This too harms the reputation of the brand and the manufacturer.
3. Grey market goods often have different warranty protection — or none at all — when sold or used outside the market for which they were made. This causes customer frustration and dissatisfaction.
4. Grey market goods sometimes are of lower quality (hence the lower price), which harms the reputation of the brand and the manufacturer.
5. Grey market goods often interfere with the business expectations of the original manufacturer and its licensees.
Part 2: How Are Grey Market Goods Regulated in China?
One of the minor mysteries of modern China is how every mall has so many luxury-brand stores that seem never to have anyone shopping inside. I’ve read numerous explanations for this disparity, none of them entirely satisfactory: the shops are loss leaders in an effort to build brand loyalty in China; the shops are highly subsidized by mall owners to bring in other tenants and/or to give them face; all of the sales are made after hours to Party officials’ relatives and mistresses; people just aren’t paying attention at the right time.
But one answer for the empty stores, surely, is the enormous size of China’s grey market for luxury goods. In 2015, Chinese citizens spent $22.5 billion on luxury goods purchased in China – and more than twice that amount abroad.
Grey market goods exist because there’s a market for them, and that market exists because grey market goods are either cheaper or have better availability. But in China there’s a third driver of the grey market: quality. It’s ironic because in the US, grey market goods have a strong whiff of caveat emptor; if you buy a product outside the normal channels you accept the risk that it might be lower quality. But in China, the calculus is flipped: because counterfeiting is so rampant, the chance of buying a fake is considered to be much lower if the goods come from overseas.
Historically, a significant proportion of grey market luxury goods in China have come via daigou, personal shoppers (usually young Chinese women) who live or travel overseas and purchase luxury goods for well-heeled clients in China. I’ve seen this in action: at Seattle Premium Outlets’ Burberry Store, you sometimes have to wait in line just to get in the store, only to be ignored when it becomes clear you’re not there to drop twenty thousand bucks.
Other grey market goods in China are purchased directly by consumers, either while traveling overseas, or from foreign reseller sites like eBay. Grey market goods can also be found on Chinese e-commerce sites like Taobao and 1688.com; these goods are usually purchased “on spec” overseas and then resold in China. (The daigou as impersonal shopper.) Baby formula and iPhones have, at various times, been extremely popular grey market goods in China.
Grey market goods are legal in China, or at least not an infringement of the brand owner’s IP rights. Indeed, Shanghai’s Free Trade Zone has a car dealership that specializes in grey market automobiles.
But many grey market goods in China run afoul of the law in another way: customs fraud. When the goods are brought into China, they are not declared at all or are declared at lower values. Defrauding Chinese customs is an essential part of many a daigou’s profit margin, because China has historically imposed significant duties on a range of luxury imports.
China has attempted to crack down on illegal grey market importation through a number of means, including (1) higher taxes on goods brought in by travelers as part of their luggage, (2) lower taxes on goods imported through legitimate channels; and (3) increased penalties for those caught falsifying customs declarations.
The effectiveness of these measures is a bit hard to gauge: some reports say the measures are eliminating large-scale daigous; others suggest that the enforcement is both haphazard and overbroad, and when Chinese people attempt to order directly from overseas retailers, the packages are frequently rejected at the border, with the result being that people are even more reliant on daigous to get the products they want.
On a certain level, foreign brand owners might not be that concerned about grey market imports in China – Christian Louboutin gets paid whether a pair of pumps is bought in Shanghai or in Houston and then taken to Shanghai and resold. But they should be concerned, for several reasons. First, they want to be seen as cooperating with the Chinese government on tax and customs issues. Second, having to deal with so many purchases by Chinese travelers overseas is a drain on resources (staffing, marketing, logistics) and distorts the worldwide revenue stream. Third, sometimes the prices in China, even accounting for taxes and tariffs, are higher than they are abroad — although a number of brands have normalized prices in China in an attempt to dissuade gray market sales. Fourth, the daigou phenomenon increases the amount of intermediation between brands and their consumers, which is exactly the opposite of what companies want. How can you market to customers when you don’t know who they are? And how can you control your brand identity when you are not the seller?