Big brands are worried about “dupes” luring holiday shoppers

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Lauren Maginness is a fan of Lululemon. But the 31-year-old product marketer from New York City is increasingly supplementing her activewear with cheaper brand dupes that she purchases through the e-commerce site Amazon.

One of her favorites: CRZ Yoga’s $32 high-waisted yoga pants, which are similar to Lululemon’s popular $98 Align leggings. Maginness learned about CRZ from an influencer on the short video platform TikTok who describes herself as a former Lululemon employee.

As the holiday shopping season begins, top sellers Lululemon, Abercrombie & Fitch, Birkenstock and Estee Lauder’s Tom Ford perfume are competing for shoppers like Maginness and her growing love affair with TikTok-popular “dupes” — sufficiently similar replicas of higher-priced products.

According to data from e-commerce analytics firm Jungle Scout, CRZ Yoga is doing brisk business, selling an average of 88,633 pairs of leggings per month and generating average monthly revenue of about $2.84 million. CRZ, which according to its website is owned by a Hong Kong trading company, did not respond to a request for comment.

Growing demand for lookalike products, combined with an inflation-driven decline in spending, is hurting sales of some trendy, big-name products. “Dupes” are so common, especially among younger consumers, that Maginness said she was considering giving a friend a fake Lululemon activewear set. “After all, with the fraudster you have more flexibility in your budget,” she said.

Hashtag searches for copies of big brands — including Skims underwear and Deckers Ugg boots — received millions of views on TikTok. Influencers who accept commissions regularly promote similar, alternative products from low-cost retailers like Walmart, Target and perfume e-tailer Dossier.

Last week, Passionate Penny Pincher, a discount blog that accepts commissions on sales, touted $29.99 Dearfoam Shearling Ugg Dupe Slippers as a holiday gift in an email to its followers. Department store chain Nordstrom has offered original “Ugg slippers on everyone’s gift list” for $115.

Counterfeit products have become so common across such a wide range of sellers that experts say it’s difficult to quantify how much market share they could steal from the original products this holiday season. Most at risk are branded perfumes, cosmetics and mid-range clothing and footwear, particularly those “commodity” products that are easy to replicate, said Leslie Ghize, executive vice president of retail consulting firm Doneger Tobe.

According to a survey of 3,429 people by Circana Inc., 28 percent of U.S. consumers said they plan to give a beauty product such as perfume as a holiday gift, and 55 percent plan to give clothing, shoes or accessories.

Lululemon, whose second-quarter sales rose 18 percent year-over-year, launched a two-day “Dupe Swap” promotion in Los Angeles in May, allowing shoppers to swap lookalikes for Align leggings. Lululemon declined to comment. Chief Executive Calvin McDonald told investors in June that about half of the shoppers who participated in the exchange were under 30 and new to Lululemon.

From fast fashion to e-commerce

Experts believe that the current furor over scammers can be traced back to the beginnings of fast fashion. Inditex-owned Zara, which opened its first store in 1975, specialized in replicating luxury designs. Shorter production cycles allowed more styles to come to market faster, which “sparked the habit of buying more frequently,” said Ian Taplin, a professor at Wake Forest University.

E-commerce platforms Amazon, eBay, Shopify and Etsy helped speed up scammers’ sales by making it easier to compare prices for similar goods. Newer technologies like the Google Lens app allow people to take photos of items they like and find similar products for sale.

The Chinese marketplace Alibaba makes it easy for would-be fraudsters to find and engage manufacturers. Some manufacturers use the same materials and fabrics as big brands, said Juozas Kaziukenas, founder of e-commerce analytics firm Marketplace Pulse.

In other cases, fraudulent sellers choose to recreate the look of more expensive originals using cheaper materials to maximize profits.

Either way, sellers on shopping platforms like Amazon typically don’t have the same overhead costs as retailers with brick-and-mortar stores, allowing them to get goods to shoppers more cheaply. “They may not be exactly the same, but they are a lot cheaper,” Kaziukenas said.

According to a survey of 3,000 Millennials and Gen Z consumers conducted by consumer review platform Trustpilot in the US, UK and Italy, 30 to 49 percent of shoppers were disappointed by “duplicates” purchased online.

Amazon spokeswoman Maria Boschetti said the company does not allow its sellers to use the words “dupe,” “fake” or “faux” in conjunction with a brand name when describing their products on the site. But it can’t always keep up with sellers who break the rule, according to Mike Scheschuk, president of small and medium-sized businesses at Jungle Scout.

Last Wednesday, several products available on Amazon appeared to violate the policy, including a pair of clogs listed by Birkenstock as “duplicates” of a popular style that were priced more than $100 less than the original.

A spokesman for Birkenstock said the company “takes the issue of brand and piracy very seriously” and takes a “rigorous approach” to defending its intellectual property. However, experts say fraudulent sellers have become increasingly adept at avoiding brand logos and other design features that could infringe existing patents or copyrights.

By Katherine Masters

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