To Diane Macpherson of Lucia Lucia, KwaZulu-Natal, the 500ml bottle of Johnson’s baby lotion in her local Dis-Chem looked just like any other she’d bought for her little daughter since her birth in 2011.
It was only when she got home that she saw a sticker on the back of the pack, which read: “Parallel Import. These goods are genuine, however they have been imported without the approval of the registered owner of the trademark and no guarantee or warranty, if any, will be honoured or fulfilled by any official or licensed importer.”
Macpherson assumed that as the product’s packaging was identical to that of the locally produced product, the product itself would be, too.
But she was in for a surprise.
“It’s very different,” she said. “Much more runny than the local version, and it has a totally different perfume. I don’t like it at all.”
The parallel import, at the time of purchase, was slightly cheaper than the locally made product in the 300ml bottle with which it shared shelf space (R10.40 per 100ml vs R13 per 100ml).
When I paid a visit to another Dis-Chem branch, I found the two baby lotion packs, on the same shelf, as well as local and (parallel) imported Johnson’s Baby Shampoo. Same story. The local product was in a 300ml bottle, and the imported counterpart in a 500ml bottle, the imported product being slightly cheaper (R7.20 per 100ml vs R9.66 per 100ml).
So what’s the deal with parallel imports?
Well, they’re perfectly legal, for starters. They are not fake goods; they are genuine, but not intended for the market in which they are being sold.
Several retailers choose to source international brands from overseas markets, which they are entitled to, as long as they alert consumers to this fact.
The Consumer Protection Act (CPA) requires them to place a notice on advertising, websites, brochures and on the packaging of the goods themselves “in a place where the consumer is likely to see it”, and in an easily legible size.
The notice must state, as Dis-Chem’s does, that the goods have been imported without the approval or licence of the registered owner of the trade mark and that no guarantee or warranty will be honoured by the licensed importer.
This is especially important when it comes to the parallel importing of electronic goods such as cellphones and TVs.
So while Dischem’s notice is CPA-compliant in terms of its wording, I questioned Dis-Chem’s operations director Brian Epstein about the placement of the notice – on the back, rather than the front, of the pack, given that Macpherson only noticed it after purchase.
“Does Dis-Chem feel that the small sticker on the back of the packs fulfils the ‘likely to see’ requirement?”
Responding, Epstein began by saying that Dis-Chem had sourced the Johnson’s products in question from overseas “in order to bring the consumer a quality product at a lower price” and stressed that they complied with “strict European Union quality standards”.
“As global markets become more accessible, this common trend of sourcing goods worldwide will continue to grow across all spheres of business,” he said.
As for the sticker declaration, Epstein said: “We believe that the sticker is a prominent indicator that the product is a parallel import and that most discerning consumers will read the information on the back of a pack when checking the information on the product, and the sticker will easily be seen.”
Of course, it could be argued that consumers buying a product they have bought many times before are unlikely to check the small print at the back of the pack before purchase.
Regarding Macpherson’s view that the imported product was significantly different from the local one she had become accustomed to, Epstein said given that it was produced by a different manufacturing plant, “there may be slight differences in appearance to the local product”.
“However, the efficacy of the product is the same.”
Asked how Dis-Chem would respond if consumers such as Macpherson wished to return the product because they were not aware that it was significantly different from the local product, Epstein said the company would apply its “normal liberal exchange policy rules, which are compliant with the CPA”.
The CPA does not compel retailers to take back products which are not defective. Would Dis-Chem regard a different smell or consistency as a defect? I doubt it.
Approached for comment, Johnson & Johnson’s head of corporate affairs, Laura Nel, said: “We are aware of Dis-Chem bringing in parallel imports and we have highlighted our concerns to them.
“As we are 100 percent committed to ensuring that our consumers receive excellent service, we provide support and replacement for any product that a consumer might be disappointed with – regardless of where they have been purchased.”
Good to know.
Nel added that the company encouraged consumers to “buy local”.