A detailed replica of an Apple Store that has been fooling customers in southwest China has caused has caused a sensation and highlighted the country's lax enforcement of intellectual property rights regulations.
KUNMING, YUNNAN PROVINCE, CHINA (JULY 22, 2011) (REUTERS - Chinese counterfeiters have had a field day making knockoffs of Apple's best-selling iPhones and iPads.
But one has gone a step further, and opened a near flawless fake Apple Store which has been fooling customers but has drawn attention to the country's lax approach to intellectual property rights regulations.
Complete with the white Apple logo, wooden tables, identical posters and cheery staff in blue T-shirts, the store in Kunming, capital of China's mountainous south-western Yunnan province, looks every bit like Apple Stores found all over the world.
But Apple has no stores in Kunming and only 13 authorized resellers in the city, who are not allowed to call themselves Apple Stores or claim to work for Apple.
Apple was alerted to its existence after an American living in the city wrote about it on his blog.
But 18-year-old Kuming resident Hu Junkai was unfazed.
"As long as their products are real, it is okay. After all, when you enter the store, you are looking at their products and not anything else. If the products you buy are real and not counterfeit, who cares whether this store is a copy or not. The only thing that matters is that their products are real," he said.
Not all customers have taken the news well, with some returning to demand their money back since the news broke, though all products appeared to be genuine.
Just a few blocks away, another fake, though less convincing, Apple Store can be found.
Apple has so far declined to comment on the fake stores but a spokesman said consumers can go to the company's website to locate authorized outlets.
Apple takes infringement of intellectual property very seriously and acts swiftly to protect its secrets.
The United States and other Western countries have often complained China is woefully behind in its effort to stamp out intellectual property theft.
Mr. Rao, supervisor at the second store, didn't see any problem with imitating the store design if the products were real, which he said they were, and that the store had a legal license, which he said they did.
"I feel you cannot say we are a fake Apple store because we are selling real Apple products. Now it is a matter of finding out whether this store is authorised by Apple or not. I myself do not know whether we are an authorised store or not. Only the boss knows about this," he said.
Apple products are selling like hot cakes in the world's second biggest economy as a newly wealthy middle class coveting designer brands and symbols of quality.
China is the fastest growing market for the iPhone, though the number of official Apple Stores has not grown accordingly.
The huge new store in Beijing's Xidan shopping district is one of just four across the huge country.
Apple executives have said they have just scratched the surface in China and the company is in the process of opening two more stores in the next year.
Twenty-seven-year-old student Wan Liang said he would only buy from the real deal.
"I don't think I would buy products from that store. First of all, it is in violation of property rights. In addition, they merely copied the outside appearance but failed to copy the Apple's unique characteristics. They wouldn't be able to reproduce Apple's high quality service," he said.
Countless unauthorized resellers of Apple and other brands' electronic products throughout China sell the real thing but buy their goods overseas and smuggle them into the country to skip taxes.
In May, China was listed for the seventh year by the U.S. Trade Representative's office as a country with one of the worst records for preventing copyright theft.
James Roy, a senior researcher at China Market Research, said fakery on this scale could damage the brand.
"Well it can hurt, especially if people can't tell the difference between the real thing and the copy. People might have a bad experience, they might blame the brand," he said.
Outside the official Apple Store in Beijing, Scalpers make the most of demand by buying iPads at the beginning of the day and selling them at elevated prices to customers once the store has sold out.
And in computer stores around the country, smuggled versions of the iPad 2 were available months before it went on sale officially.