BEIJING, July 22, 2011 -- They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But for many international companies in China, protecting themselves from counterfeiters is a constant and costly battle.
Hop on the Beijing subway and you may notice ads for "Groupon.cn." It's the same name as the American daily deals web giant, even the same logo. But "Groupon.cn" has nothing to do with the real "Groupon," which actually calls itself "Gaopeng" here in China.
The real Groupon launched its Chinese website earlier this year with much fanfare but it has been lagging in sales, in part because of websites like "Groupon.cn" and the thousands of other Groupon imposters.
Bill Bishop, an independent analyst, explained to ABC News, "It's a risk for any successful American company, especially an internet company. Groupon's been in the news as a super hot company and the reality is that if you get written up on Tech Crunch, you can be fairly well assured that within days that there will be several groups of people in China trying to clone your product."
An employee of Groupon.cn told ABC News that the company has nothing to do with "Groupon.com," despite having the same name, and that she did not know why they had chosen the "Groupon.cn" domain name.
China's Fakes Include KFG and Pizza Huh
The problem is not limited to Groupon. This week an American living in Kunming, in South West China, ignited a media furor when she posted pictures on her BirdAbroad blog of an incredibly realistic but entirely fake Apple store. From the hardwood floors to the minimalist staircase and sleek Apple posters on the walls, it is almost impossible to distinguish the store from a real Apple store. Shop attendants wear blue T-shirts bearing the Apple logo, and many of the employees reportedly believe that they worked in an Apple store.
The one major giveaway, the blogger wrote, the sign in front of the store: "Apple never writes 'Apple Store' on its signs — it just puts up the glowing, iconic fruit."
The blogger added that there are two other fake Apple stores in Kunming. No one from those stores could be reached today, but one employee told a reporter from Xinhua that staff had been instructed to remain silent and that a press release from the company's headquarters would be forthcoming.
A representative from the real Apple told ABC News that the company is declining to comment on the issue. The three stores are not listed as official resellers on Apple's website.
The fake Apple is just the latest example of brazen counterfeiting in China. In 2003 Starbucks sued a Chinese coffee shop chain that called itself Xingbake, Mandarin for Starbucks. Starbucks eventually won the suit in 2006.
Disney clamped down hard on the "Lovely Rat" Mickey Mouse lookalikes that appeared in Beijing during the Olympics. And it has battled for years to shut down the Shijingshan Amusement Park in Beijing, whose central structure bears more than a passing resemblance to the Disney World's Magic Kingdom.
Often companies are smart, changing their name just a tiny bit. Hence the birth of eateries such as "KFG", "Pizza Huh" and "McDnoald's."
Shoppers at a Beijing Apple store today seemed unconcerned by the reports. One man, who only gave his last name Chen, told ABC News, "I heard about the fake Apple store in Kunming on the internet. I don't think it's a big deal. It happens all the time.... It's Apple China's job to worry about fake stores and products, not the customers'."
There is perhaps one winner in all this: the 27 year old American blogger who broke the story. Her BirdAbroad blog has received more than 500,000 visits in the last 48 hours.