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Shoe shop in Haikou, Hainan Province.
Shoe shop in Haikou, Hainan Province.
Duan Linna

BEIJING — Summer shopping included the hunt for a new pair of sandals, which was also an opportunity to take stock in where the Chinese shoe industry stands.

In itself, it is not surprising to find a "cohabitation" of different quality from different brands in a single shopping center. It's also natural that different brands target different customers, at different price points. The problem with Chinese shoes companies runs deeper: the blatent copying of designs from foreign brands.

One example: an ingenious design of the heels of the wedge sandals from the French brand Chloé appear identically in a large number of Chinese brands' summer collections this year.

Design is intellectual property. It’s the expression of a person's intelligence and creativity, and it should be protected. When such copycat behavior becomes commonplace, it not only is an act of unfair competition and unjust enrichment, but also discourages business culture from innovating.

The net result is that the Chinese footwear industry will fail to upgrade and will be shut out of international competition.

10 billion shoes

It might be true in China’s fast-moving consumer goods industry that such breach of copyright is openly tolerated, which allows original and copycat to “harmoniously coexist.” But this phenomenon underestimates female consumers’ ability to distinguish the real from the fake, and will ultimately be fatal for the copying brand.

China's shoemakers must commit instead to move up from low-end processing factories to independent manufacturers of shoes with their own brands and design.

Today, China has the world’s biggest shoe manufacturing industry. Each year, it produces 10 billion pairs of shoes, which represents two-thirds of the world’s annual production. Yet, few Chinese shoemakers are able to turn out a high-end brand design of their own. Chinese footwear businesses find themselves in a fierce competition, not only with their peers in China, but also with those in India, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Although a business environment that encourages innovation and protects intellectual property is yet to be established in China, the rules of the game are not going to change. And more and more Chinese consumers are starting to set the bar high before they commit to a brand. And the key to gain such allegiance is in the design. The recognition of a certain style is the first step to establish consumer loyalty, particularly for fast-moving consumer goods industries such as footwear.

A female consumer can recognize in a pair of shoes both the designer and the brand. It is often sewn in with shoemakers' hundred years of history, like an invisible patent that raises the value of the brand.

China’s economic growth will ever more rely on domestic consumption, as rural as well as urban area’s average income has grown 10-12% in 2013. And Chinese people with greater purchasing power are looking for products with better quality and stronger identity.

A Chinese consumer buys only 2.5 pairs of shoes per year on average, far behind the average 7.5 pairs in the United States. This implies a huge potential for China’s domestic shoe market. Valuing independent design and promoting the brand must be the golden rules for Chinese shoemakers to seize the opportunity in the booming economy.

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