Why some Emiratis buy counterfeit goods when they could afford the genuine product

Researchers from Paris Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi recently undertook a series of studies to explain this paradox.

Citizens of the UAE have one of the highest per capita incomes on the planet. Illustration The National staff
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Is it a real one?

As counterfeit products become common in the UAE, who has never wondered whether one of the many top-brand handbags proudly sported was a fake?

And quite rightly. Although citizens of the UAE have one of the highest per capita incomes on the planet, one third of them are believed to occasionally buy counterfeit luxury goods, as was shown by researchers from Paris Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi, who recently undertook a series of studies to explain this paradox.

So why do Emiratis buy counterfeit goods when they could afford the genuine product? One explanation may be that they do not perceive such purchases as risky, feeling there is:

• No legal risk (the risk of sanctions for buying or using counterfeit goods);

• No financial risk (even though poor-quality counterfeit goods carry no guarantees);

• No ethical risk (perception of committing a morally reprehensible act);

• No macroeconomic risk (perceptions of tax evasion, or the loss of jobs and the trade deficit that could result from counterfeit consumption);

• No psychosocial risk (feelings of shame or guilt about buying or consuming counterfeit goods, partly because of other people’s criticisms of consumers of counterfeit goods);

• No performance risk (related to the poorer quality of counterfeit goods).

A quantitative study of 104 Emiratis confirmed that they see absolutely no legal or financial risk in the purchase of counterfeit goods, as well as low ethical and macroeconomic risks. However, they do associate such purchases with substantial psychosocial and performance risks. So when Emiratis buy fake goods, they do so despite the possibility of the product failing them or their peers criticising their choice.

To follow up this first study, the Paris Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi researchers conducted a series of 19 interviews with Emiratis representing a range of profiles. First, these interviews confirm the perception of substantial psychosocial and performance risks.

Regarding psychosocial risk, the interviewees express their concern in the following ways: “What if someone caught me with something fake?” and “They will judge me and will think everything that I own is fake”.

Regarding performance quality, they expect that “the quality won’t be the same” or “I’ll use it for a month and then it will need repairing”.

More interestingly, the interviews show the justification strategies used by Emiratis to cope with the risks they associate with buying counterfeit goods.

A first strategy relies on Emirati consumers’ high expertise in luxury products, which they draw on in order to select only the best fake products – “A-grade fake”, “AAA copy”, “copy number 1” – sometimes costing several thousand dirhams. This is a way for consumers to reduce the risk of buying a poor-quality product, as well as the potentially associated psychosocial risk of being caught.

A second, and particularly creative, strategy consists of using both genuine products and copies, depending on the occasion. Authentic articles are preferred when the individual is attending socially meaningful events, and fakes are used in everyday situations. Owning genuine branded goods somehow “authenticates” the counterfeit products, and provides consumers with greater protection against the risk of detection.

A third strategy, labelled the “fashionista strategy”, consists of favouring copies of very recent or limited-edition products. As these types of imitation goods are usually available just a few weeks after the original products go on sale, they are less familiar to the general public. This makes it more difficult to spot the telltale differences between the genuine and fake articles, and also limits the psychosocial risk attached to counterfeit purchases.

There is also a fourth strategy, the “believer strategy”, founded on the idea that buying genuine luxury products can have an immoral dimension when other people are living in poverty. In this case buying counterfeits is justified by religion, and in particular by the fact that the money saved can be given to the poor.

Examining the cultural specificity of luxury consumption in the UAE, the results of the work by researchers at Paris Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi add to the large body of work concerning western and Asian consumers of luxury goods. Interestingly, they show that Emiratis buy counterfeit items particularly because they are structurally large buyers of luxury products. The rising number of collections launched by luxury brands in a single year could increase demand for genuine products as much as for counterfeit goods.

Furthermore, because they help to explain what stops people from buying copies and the strategies used more or less consciously to overcome their reticence, these research findings suggest a certain number of recommendations for public policymakers in charge of anti-counterfeit measures.

First, anti-counterfeit action plans should aim for a more concrete presentation of the risks that are not perceived by Emiratis when they buy imitation goods. They could remind consumers of the legal risks they run, particularly if they are going to cross international borders, and the sanctions applicable could be reinforced.

More emphasis could also be placed on the ethical and macroeconomic risks associated with purchases of counterfeit goods made by child workers in Asia, and the harm done to the UAE economy could become a main theme of their consumer information and education campaigns.

Anti-counterfeit plans could then try to foil the strategies used by Emiratis to explain and justify their purchases of imitation goods. Communication campaigns should stress the reality of the psychosocial risk attached to counterfeit purchases, and present such purchases as potentially shameful.

Cécile Chamaret is an assistant professor at Paris Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi and in charge of the luxury goods research programme. Julia Pueschel is a part-time teacher at Paris Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi. Béatrice Parguel is a researcher at CNRS, the French National Centre for Scientific Research