Opinion: Samsonite (Counterfeit merchandise)POSTED: 07/13/12 11:58 AM
A media ad depicting a letter from José Manuel Pérez Meléndez attracted our attention yesterday. Melendez is the commercial director of Samsonite Mexico. The letter states that Designer Exchange, a retailer located at the corner of Back Street and Hendrik Straat – just a few steps away from the courthouse – is the company’s sales and commercial representative. It is the exclusive retailer of the Samsonite and American Tourister brands in St. Maarten, Meléndez wrote.
That the retailer thought it necessary to publish this letter as an advertisement hardly needs further explanation. St. Maarten has a bit of a reputation as the counterfeit capital of the Caribbean – a status that makes an increasing number of tourists hesitant to buy any brand product on our island.
Wandering down Back Street it did not take us long to find a retailer offering Samsonite suitcases. The very friendly sales girl told us that the smallest model would put us back $40. But it’s not a real Samsonite now, is it, we asked innocently, and the sales girl readily admitted that this was so. That’s one for the prosecution: a retailer selling counterfeit Samsonite suitcases.
This retailer is not shy about it either, because the suitcases are on display near the store’s front door, visible for any passer-by. Further down Back Street, close to the corner with Voges street we found another store with Samsonites for sale. These suitcases looked so fake that we did not even bother to ask the store owner about them.
These two examples show that the counterfeit industry in St. Maarten is alive and kicking. So how do these products arrive on the island and why isn’t anybody doing something about it?
To start with the first part of the question: merchandise arrives via the port. Merchandise has to pass the Customs department. Based on results, said Customs department is doing a lousy job, because Samsonites are not the only counterfeit product our esteemed retailers offer their clients. There are watches, tee shorts, polo shirts, perfumes, watches, jewelry – you name it. Anything that can be counterfeited will be counterfeited and local retailers happily put them on the market.
Why the government is not opting for a more active approach to these shady merchants is a mystery. The thought that this is first and foremost the problem of the official distributors of brand products is incorrect, because the reputation the counterfeit products have given St. Maarten makes most tourists think twice before buying brand products because reputable retailers have a hard time convincing them that they are selling the real thing.
Why the trade in counterfeit products flourishes is not difficult to understand: the profits are huge and the risks are relatively small. Retailers do not think about counterfeit product as stolen goods, they think about it as a way to make money.
But there is no doubt that the producers of counterfeit articles are thieves. They steal the design of brand products, they copy them in sweat shops in China and other places, and then they sell them on the global market.
If the Customs department would do its job, no counterfeit product would ever enter the territory of St. Maarten. Oh, maybe that’s an overstatement, but let’s say that there would be a lot less counterfeit products on sale. But apparently it is easy as Dell to bring in all these fake products. Retailers have their stores stuffed with these articles and the chance that they get a visit from a bailiff to confiscate their illicit stock is practically nil. Last year there have been a couple of raids whereby bailiffs confiscated a huge amount of brand watches and brand handbags. But lately it has been quiet on this front, and one may well wonder why this is so.
Do customers care whether a product they buy is genuine or counterfeit? They should, but most of them don’t. Technically, buying a fake Rolex, a counterfeit Ralph Lauren polo shirt or a fake Hard Rock Cafe tee shirt is fencing, and that is a crime. However in the big scheme of things buying and selling counterfeit articles does not rank high on the list of priorities at the prosecutor’s office. Murder, manslaughter, domestic violence, sexual abuse, embezzlement, burglary are the cases that take up practically all the time of our law enforcement officers.
This means in a practical sense that the hunt for counterfeit-retailers is left up to the injured party.
Still, in April of last year bailiff Karl Arndell led raids on two Front street stores that were caught selling counterfeit watches. The bailiff confiscated more than one thousand watches with an estimated retail value between $100, 000 and $150, 000. The action took place at the request of the federation of the Swiss Watch Industry.
React, the European anti-counterfeiting network, is also active in the fight against fake products. But the beleaguered retailer that is the exclusive distributor for Samsonite says that he would have to pay his own lawyers to get anything going. At the end of the day, the expense just isn’t worth it for a small retailer.
React has 175 members that cover all areas of industry. In 2000 react handled 1, 426 counterfeit cases worldwide; last year that number ballooned to 20, 429. But while the number of cases dramatically increased, so did the value of the counterfeit market. Frontier, Europe’s leading economic consultancy, estimated the global value of counterfeit products at between $450 and $650 billion in 2008. By 2015 – that’s less than three years from now – it will have almost tripled to $1,770 billion.
Against the background of such enormous figures, the irritation a Samsonite dealer in St. Maarten feels over the fact that some of his fellow-merchants are competing against him with pirated goods, may seem almost insignificant. That would be a wrong perception: it is as bad as it will ever become. Counterfeit products do not only harm the economic interests of individual retailers, they also harm the reputation of St. Maarten as a tourist destination. That makes the fight against counterfeit products a matter for the government to deal with, so we are eagerly awaiting some initiative from Economic Affairs Minister Romeo Pantophlet.