Future technologies will not only help curb the counterfeit market, but act as vehicles for brand storytelling, said Graham Wetzbarger, chief authenticator of second-hand e-tailer The RealReal at SXSW.
The advent of technologies that combat fakes may have hit strides over the past few years, but the problem is far from being tamed, he said. Even though the USA counterfeit industry experienced an 8% uptick in seizures at border control from 2016 to 2017, it is becoming increasingly difficult to target illegal goods from navigating from country to country. At present, only 10% of counterfeit goods are seized, and the industry retains $1.7 trillion in value globally, said Avery Dennison’s director of digital solutions Julie Vargas in the same session.
The challenge is outsmarting counterfeiters, who are operating in a much more granular manner, Wetzbarger noted. While in the past goods would arrive in large quantities via shipping containers, they are now coming in via airmail through local courier services. Illegal goods are also produced and retailed through a variety of channels, from very real looking, but fake e-commerce websites, to the dark web and last mile counterfeiting.
For young and label-hungry consumers in cities such as Seoul and Moscow, buying fakes is the most viable option when import taxes are too high, or there is little to no access to on-trend labels such as Off-White and Vetements, said Wetzbarger.
Tapping into the digitally-savvy behaviour of these shoppers, counterfeiters are becoming influencers in their own right and gaining a loyal following on social media. Hypebeast online publication Highsnobiety now runs Counterfeit Culture, an online video series that explores the culture globally – an indication that beyond supporting an illegal trade, fake goods are now becoming a social currency among a niche group of consumers.
Beyond traditional tools of authentication – such as inspecting the material and construction of goods – Wetzbarger also stressed the importance of introducing tags to not only tell the product’s story, but also act as an extension of the brand. In this matter, new technologies such as blockchain are starting to emerge to enable brands to have more control of tracking and developing content for individual goods.
“There’s a secret sauce to always staying one step ahead of counterfeiters. When talking about the secondary economy it’s not a perfect science, but technology can help with that,” said Vargas of Avery Dennison.
The deployment of blockchain will also go hand-in-hand with a consumer need to be constantly connected and informed about the provenance of their purchases. Wetzbarger suggested that handbags, which are the largest product category on The RealReal platform, could tell the story of previous owners if they chose to participate, for example. He also talks of a future in which a Clueless-type of digital closet, where connected labels can track what garments the consumer has, how often they are used, and what items are missing in their style repertoire.
As recently seen by Stella McCartney’s announcement of collaborating with The RealReal to authenticate and officially sell her label’s merchandise, there is a strong element of sustainability attached to buying from the circular economy. For consumers, it means having another home for an item that may no longer be to their taste, but still holds quality and meaning. For labels, it is continuing the lifecycle of a brand and strengthening its value, said Wetzbarger. “Brands are getting behind this because they want their products to hold equity.”
Adding a digital ledger on the blockchain to every product could have a myriad of benefits not only to first-time buyers, but to re-sellers, therefore. “How interesting would it be if a product was always telling data?” concluded Wetzbarger.