China's appetite for iFakes may be dying down — for now, at least.
The number of fake Apple stores along a busy street in the Chinese city of Shenzhen has dwindled by about a third from more than 30 as recently as September when Reuters reporters last visited the area, some replaced by unauthorized stores selling locally-branded phones from Huawei, Xiaomi, Meizu and Oppo.
While China remains a crucial growth driver for Apple, the anecdotal evidence from Shenzhen illustrates the economic headwinds the U.S. firm faces in a market that CEO Tim Cook has said will one day be its biggest.
Apple's China sales grew 84 percent in the year through September. But, with China's economy growing at its slowest pace in a quarter of a century last year, there are concerns that consumers are tightening their purse strings.
To be sure, copycat outlets represent just a small fraction of Apple's sales in China, where it also sells handsets through mobile carriers and its own official stores. But they can be a useful gauge of demand. And the frequency at which these tech shops switch brand loyalty also reflects how fickle Chinese buyers can be, and underscores how fierce competition is in the world's largest smartphone market.
"It's not as cool as before to have an iPhone," said Cai, a 23-year-old assistant at one of the remaining copycat Apple stores.
She said sales had about halved from October levels — when the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus debuted in China — adding the iPhone had become a "street cellphone," using a Chinese term to describe something that's widely available and popular, but lacking in novelty value. "Using an iPhone is hardly something you can show off to people now," she said.
It was unclear if the decline in the number of fake stores might be the result of any pressure by Apple to clamp down on counterfeiting of its brand. Apple China did not immediately respond to requests for comment.