In this projected 4-part series we’ll take a closer look at grey market goods and China. In part 1, we’ll consider what grey market goods are and why manufacturers get so worked up about them. In part 2, we’ll look at how grey market goods are regulated in China. In part 3 we’ll look at how grey market goods are regulated in the United States. And in part 4, we’ll look at grey market goods and Chinese factories, and what foreign companies can do to protect themselves.
Part 1: What are grey market goods, and why do they matter?
Grey market goods are authentic goods sold by unauthorized means. Unauthorized does not necessarily mean illegal; it simply means the goods are coming from someone other than (1) the original manufacturer or (2) a third party to whom the manufacturer has granted permission to resell the goods.
E-commerce has made all manner of grey market goods readily available. When I purchase Gillette razor blades on Amazon for delivery in the United States, the cheapest sellers are all offering grey market blades packaged for sale overseas (typically, Asia, Eastern Europe or South America). Although it’s unclear if these blades are exactly the same as what I would buy at a drugstore in the U.S., the price difference is significant enough that I’m willing to take the chance. And that’s just one example. Any product that has a significant difference in price or availability across different countries is likely to be sold on the grey market. And the flow of goods could go in any direction; it just depends on price and the demand. As China’s consumer class has grown in strength, so has the market for grey market goods. Products as disparate as Apple’s iPhone and Pfizer’s Viagra did significant business in China as grey market goods before they were officially available there.
Grey market goods are hardly a creation of the Internet, though.
A Vancouver, BC man named Michael Hallatt grew tired of waiting for Trader Joe’s to come to Canada, and since 2012 he has operated a store in Vancouver called Pirate Joe’s that stocks nothing but goods bought at Trader Joe’s stores in Washington State. All of the goods are purchased at retail prices in Washington and then marked up for sale in Canada. Trader Joe’s has been trying to shut Hallatt down for years, and has sued him for trademark infringement, unfair competition, false designation of origin, and false advertising.
Two weeks ago Pirate Joe’s announced it was closing its doors, which would have made the lawsuit moot, but at the end of last week Hallatt reversed course and announced on the PJ’s website that he was back in business. What makes Pirate Joe’s story interesting for IP attorneys is how it calls into question the limits of grey market sales. Hallatt certainly seems to enjoy tweaking Trader Joe’s and skirting the edge of the doctrine, but as the Freakonomics blog pointed out in 2013, reselling Trader Joe’s goods is no different than reselling goods on eBay or at a yard sale. The case is still pending.
In another well-known story, Costco purchased large quantities of Omega Seamaster watches from an authorized reseller in Europe, then resold them in the U.S. as grey market goods. Because the prices in Europe were so much cheaper than the retail prices in the U.S., Costco was able to add its usual markup and still price the watches at a substantial discount. Omega sued, but after a protracted battle, Costco prevailed in 2015.
It may be self-evident that the reason grey market goods exist is because there’s a market for them: grey market goods are either cheaper than the goods available through standard channels (e.g., the Omega watches at Costco and the Gillette razor blades on Amazon) or they are simply unavailable through standard channels (e.g., the goods at Pirate Joe’s). A reasonable argument can be made that grey market goods are in fact good for many manufacturers, because they increase brand recognition and product loyalty. And profits! All of these products have been sold by the manufacturer at a price (if not a use) they deemed acceptable.
Nonetheless, grey market goods are often decried by original manufacturers for reasons including the following:
- Grey market goods are often difficult to distinguish from counterfeit goods, which harms the reputation of the brand and the manufacturer.
- Grey market goods are often customized for the particular market for which they are made, and are unsuitable for use in other markets. This too harms the reputation of the brand and the manufacturer.
- Grey market goods often have different warranty protection — or none at all — when sold or used outside the market for which they were made. This causes customer frustration and dissatisfaction.
- Grey market goods sometimes are of lower quality (hence the lower price), which harms the reputation of the brand and the manufacturer.
- Grey market goods often interfere with the business expectations of the original manufacturer and its licensees.
In Part 2 of this series, we’ll examine how China regulates grey market goods.