By Rachel Jones, founder and CEO, SnapDragon Monitoring
The COVID-19 pandemic has sent shockwaves through the retail sector. Storefronts have been shuttered by national lockdowns while the delivery of components has been hindered by global travel restrictions. From sourcing to checkout, brands are facing unprecedented obstacles to delivering their products, at the highest quality, on time. Amidst these challenges, brands must keep a sharp eye on their digital shelves to make sure only authentic products – and parts – are for sale.
The current climate does not merely present a logistical headache for purchasers and suppliers alike; it has also created a perfect storm for counterfeiters. The sharp rise in online merchants selling counterfeit face masks, pharmaceuticals and hand sanitisers has been widely reported. However, the cycling industry is not exempt from counterfeiters’ renewed lease of life.
Online shopping has soared since lockdown measures were first introduced. The cycling industry has witnessed a particularly impressive upswing in interest. Keen to avoid public transport, many consumers are investing in bicycles as an alternative. In Britain alone, bicycle sales surged by 63% between April and June, according to the Bicycle Association. However, demand is on the rise just as the system is most vulnerable.
Even in 2016, long before the pandemic, a joint operation involving the World Federation of Sporting Goods Industries removed over €9 million of counterfeit cycling products from circulation. In the cycling industry, counterfeit apparel may affect performance, but fake goods can also be dangerous. Counterfeit helmets that fail industry-standard safety tests have been found for sale online; frames made of anything but the carbon fibre proclaimed on their labels are a popular product
Cycling brands are facing a spike in both consumer and counterfeiter interest. To make the most of the increase in digital sales, brands must take steps to fight the fakes. A faulty product could spoil a first-time online buyer’s opinion of your brand and dampen their new-found interest in two-wheel travel. At worst, a counterfeit part can cause serious damage.
The risk of counterfeits entering the supply chain
The first step to conquering counterfeits is to understand how they infiltrate supplies. Even at the best of times, counterfeits can become mixed in with legitimate products, meaning a consumer can purchase from a verified online seller using a third-party warehouse and still unwrap a fake. The most common entry points of illicit goods into the supply chain occur during delivery to distribution warehouses and overseas shipping, at customs ports and retail warehouses. The pandemic has made the situation much worse.
Lockdowns and physical distancing measures that began in China have seen factories shut and the capacity of official export channels severely reduced. Counterfeiters have been able to take advantage of illegal channels and the new difficulties in carrying out comprehensive inspections. Faulty products entering supplies unnoticed are difficult to remove precisely because they can be so difficult to spot.
How to recognise a problem and reduce the risk
Taking proactive measures to secure your supply chain will support your brand through the current crisis and protect your reputation into the future. Designing a comprehensive brand protection strategy that takes account of all the digital channels counterfeiters use will strengthen your defences against fakes.
Firstly, map your supply chain so you know every link in the chain. Ideally, this should run from raw materials all the way to delivery to the consumer. Identify vulnerabilities in the chain and have contingency plans in place that can be activated as soon as an issue is identified. If the factory that supplies the material used to build your bicycle frames becomes compromised or is forced to shut due to a local lockdown, you can immediately pick up the phone to another verified supplier.
Building strong relationships with suppliers and distributors is part and parcel of the mapping process. Each link in the chain should be a team with whom you speak regularly, not a dot on a map. Communicating openly with partners will help you stay abreast of local conditions – if new COVID-19 restrictions are put in place, you will be the first to know and can react accordingly. If you cannot conduct your usual site visits, ask to arrange a virtual tour.
Indeed, video calls are not the only technological solution for keeping an eye on supply chains. Tracking services will allow you to watch your goods on their journey, making any unscheduled stops apparent. Meanwhile, serialisation codes and security features such as special stitches in cycling jerseys or holograms emblazoned inside helmets can be effective tools for distinguishing legitimate goods from fakes as part of a long-term strategy. In the immediate-term, implementing an online brand protection plan will allow you to identify and remove fraudulent items from social media sites as well as online marketplaces such as Amazon, Wish, Alibaba or Rakuten. With specialist technology and the right intellectual property to prove originality, counterfeits can be removed within hours. Consumers cannot buy what they cannot see.
Another quick trick is to monitor customer reviews. An unusual increase in complaints can be a red flag. If specific issues, such as malfunctioning brakes or premature rusting, appear repeatedly, it might be that not all the items that claim to be your brand are real.
As a general rule, simpler supply chains are safer supply chains. Try to keep the number of links in your chain to a minimum (apologies for the pun). If possible, source components overseas and build the final product at home. This can help to enforce better quality control.
What to do if you find fakes
We all know what they say about the best-laid plans. If you discover that counterfeits of your brand’s products are being sold online or delivered from your warehouses, be honest. Tell consumers and distributors what has happened and take action to remove the fakes. You may have to use your recall procedures, particularly in the case of fake helmets and frames that could pose a risk to customers. Planned for and managed correctly, the appearance of counterfeits does not need to spell the disappearance of your hard-earned reputation.
The cycling industry has faced a rollercoaster of challenges and opportunities this year. Shops closed just as cycling became a first-choice means of travel. With the correct measures in place, the industry can avoid counterfeiters undermining consumer confidence and instead continue to encourage the mounting energy of a new generation of pedallers.