weekly feature | Jul 12, 2023 |
Gen Z loves dupes. What does that mean for the design industry?

If there’s one thing the TikTok generation loves (aside from lightly choreographed dances and elaborately staged reactions to a certain McDonald’s milkshake), it’s a “dupe.” Short for duplicates, a dupe is a less-expensive alternative to a high-end item. The hashtag has 2.4 billion results on TikTok, and they range wildly—from Balenciaga sneakers to Charmin toilet paper. While the fashion industry is getting hit particularly hard by the trend, the home sector is certainly not escaping unscathed. A search for RH dupes on TikTok returns over 13.2 million results. They range from Costco-brand Cloud sofa look-alikes to West Elm chandeliers standing in for more costly RH fixtures, but the “get the look for less” mentality runs through them all.

Of course, there’s nothing new about knockoffs. What is new is how easy it is to find them—and the openness with which people are sharing their discoveries. Whether you’re seeking a wannabe Prada handbag or a copycat Eames chair, simply search a few keywords and you’ll get legions of influencers who have done the work for you. And not only have they done it, but they’re giddy to tell you about it—watch enough #dupe videos, and you’ll notice that there’s a brazen sense of pride around dupe culture that has an altogether different vibe than in previous generations. “If you look at millennials and Gen X and their attitude around knockoffs, it was sort of déclassé to admit that you didn’t have the real thing,” says Charles Lindsey, an associate professor of marketing at the University at Buffalo and an expert in consumer behavior. “Maybe you weren’t able to spend the money on something, but you still wanted that acknowledgement socially that you were in on a trend. With Gen Z, we’re seeing almost the inverse. There’s now a social currency in finding a dupe. This subset of consumers like showing how much money they saved. They’re frugal and practical, and they don’t seem to care if what they buy is a brand name.”

So, why does Gen Z not seem to have the same sense of shame around knockoffs? The word “dupe” itself might have played a role. In one video, an influencer posts about a dupe of Ugg’s Tazz slipper she found on Amazon, proclaiming, “They’re not counterfeit, they’re just dupes!” Though that may seem like a matter of semantics, she’s not wrong—legally, there’s a difference between the two: A knockoff is a product that imitates another without actually violating a trademark, while a counterfeit falsely claims to actually be the item it’s imitating. A counterfeit might bear the fake logo of a particular brand, while a knockoff might just have a similar shape and aesthetic. With home furnishings in particular, it can be hard for a brand to pursue legal action against a company that’s knocking them off. “There’s been a pretty exuberant culture of knockoffs for a long time—and they’re not illegal, typically,” says Christopher Sprigman, a law professor at New York University.

Because dupes are technically legal, there seems to be a perception that they’re harmless—a sentiment disputed by John Edelman, the president and CEO of New York–based furniture brand Heller and a board member of Be Original Americas, a nonprofit that advocates for original design. “They don’t realize how badly [dupes] hurt people who are actually creating,” says Edelman. “Our philosophy is that every knockoff you buy kills the future of design. If no one buys authentic pieces, then creators won’t be able to afford to create anymore. There’s original design at every price point; no one has to buy a knockoff.”

Blu Dot founder and CEO John Christakos, who also sits on the board of Be Original Americas, attributes the issue to a lack of understanding of craft. “I wish we could do a better job of educating people about the real impact of their purchasing decisions,” he says. “All we have at Blu Dot is our creativity, our ideas. We design 100 percent of what we make, and we spend a lot of time and a lot of money to take an idea from a sketchbook to something beautifully made, reasonably priced, that will last in your home for decades. And if somebody can just go steal that with no consequence, and consumers are out there supporting that, that affects the artist and the creators. It’s not a small thing. But I don’t think people really understand that, and I don’t know how to make them understand.”

Lindsey attributes dupe culture to two root causes: economic uncertainty and a trust in influencers. Gen Z grew up amid the Great Recession and came of age during the pandemic, both experiences that may have created a more fiscally cautious generation of consumers. While Gen Z’s spending habits are generally still evolving, a 2020 survey from the Boston Consulting Group found that the demographic is more willing to buy lower-priced, lower-quality and unbranded products in categories of lesser personal importance in order to save money for purchases in categories they care more about. The other aspect is that a lot of Gen Z consumers truly put their trust in influencers that they follow. If a trusted creator is saying, “This is a better way to spend your money for the same look,” there are millions of young people ready and willing to believe them. Lindsey says that it’s not unusual now for brands to see product sales surge within 24 hours if they’ve been called out by high profile influencers.

For brands concerned about dupes that want to take action, there are essentially two paths, says Lindsey: the carrot or the stick. In the apparel sector, Lululemon recently tried the former, hosting a “Dupe Swap” at a Los Angeles store, where shoppers could trade knockoff leggings for an authentic pair. “The thinking there is, ‘If we get people the real thing, they’ll see the quality and what makes this worth the money,’” says Lindsey. “And maybe, through an effort like that, you are able to convert a certain percent of those shoppers and buy some brand loyalty.”

The proverbial stick can be a little more complicated, as it involves going after the people making the knockoffs directly. It’s an approach that Blu Dot has embraced, setting aside a dedicated budget for these efforts. “We’re super aggressive about people copying our work and have an undefeated record of going after those people,” says Christakos. “Sometimes it feels like a game of Whack-a-Mole, but it’s a necessary evil. It’s something we absolutely have to do, [otherwise] those copycats will grow exponentially. If people realize they can steal your property with no consequences, then they’ll continue to do it.” Christakos says the company uses a software that notifies the brand if images of their furniture are being used to sell on unauthorized sites, which happens regularly. “There are people who are so brazen that they’ll literally just take our own photos and put them on their sites,” he says.

When it’s a mass retailer copying Blu Dot products a little more obliquely, Christakos will have the company’s lawyer get in touch with leadership directly and draw attention to the copy. Part of the issue is that, with furniture, a design has to be really unique to prove that it’s being copied. A Parsons table, for example, would be nearly impossible to claim ownership of. “If it’s one of our designs and it’s really distinctively ours, we have to protect it,” he says.

Gen Z income is predicted to surpass millennials’ by 2031. So what will it take to get them to spend some of that cash on quality products? Perhaps ironically, given the rise of dupe culture, Lindsey says it’s authenticity that wins Zoomers over. “They’re willing to spend on brands, but that brand needs to be very transparent about their mission and values, and put effort into forging a relationship with their audience,” says Lindsey. “They’re very quick to spot when brands are trying to market themselves in an inauthentic way. They want a Main Street USA feeling—you know who the owner is, and they value your feedback. They want to feel like they have a stake in a brand.”

For his part, Edelman is hopeful that the popularity of dupes is a passing trend and that the famously climate-aware Gen Z will come to realize that fast furniture is not a sustainable choice. “You won’t use a plastic water bottle, but you’ll buy a cheap knockoff that’s going to fall apart—it doesn’t add up,” says Edelman. “I think we’ll see a level of enlightenment come as they get older. They’ll start to understand what quality and longevity can offer.”

Homepage image: Generated by Midjourney

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