It is inevitable– whenever a product or industry becomes popular enough to get regular sales on a huge retail platform like Amazon, the Chinese manufacturing and marketing machine will begin a rapid takeover.
MADE IN CHINA
It is no secret that most of the non-disc products that are sold within the disc golf market have been manufactured in China for years. The largest, most dependable disc golf brands in the USA have regularly manufactured bags, backpacks, carts, baskets, retrievers, and other products by working with Chinese manufacturers. Despite any hesitancy that some American consumers have to “buy from China,” it is a cold reality that those same consumers prefer lower prices than what USA manufacturing can produce. When given a choice between a quality $60 backpack or a $250 backpack that is “Made in the USA”, the vast majority take the cheaper option because, in the end, the difference in quality is minimal while the difference in cost is significant.
The introduction of the $40 backpack with initial releases of bags like the Dynamic Discs Trooper or the Prodigy BP-3 changed the market for Disc Golf backpacks. Suddenly anybody could afford a nice, functioning backpack to carry their discs without paying over a hundred dollars. In the years since those releases, the market became flooded by similar backpacks, all manufactured in China and imported for the disc golf market. American disc golf brands could work with the manufacturers for design alterations, or for completely new concepts, and then import those products to sell at affordable prices while still making a profit. $20 bags soon followed and the higher priced bags generally declined in price to compete. But the majority of those upper-scale backpacks were also made in China, just with different materials, extra features, or with a high priced marketing push.
One of the top selling disc retriever sellers in the USA, Qwik Stik, has openly disclosed that their product, like any telescopic pole in the industry, is made in China. But they have invested a lot of time, money, and effort in improving the product. Many such products have flaws that only reveal themselves as the broader market adopts the product. Thus Qwik Stik made continuous efforts to improve their brand. The maker of the M-Retriever has put in similar market research and has made adaptations to their retriever pole since its initial launch. Infinite Discs also introduced a simple telescopic pole retriever with a double-claw hook that differed from those other established brands. All of those variations were made in China, and in many cases, the very companies that manufactured for those American brands then turned around to offer the same exact product to competitors. While some Chinese manufacturing partners are very good to keep designs as proprietary to their partners, others take the very designs that they were given by the original American brand and offer them to competing disc golf brands or start-ups who don’t want to put effort into their own designs.
There are also manufacturers in China that watch for successful products on Amazon, then immediately clone those products and provide the cloned products directly to the Amazon market. They ship the cloned products under a different name (any name they choose) by the pallet from China to an Amazon warehouse. Thus they begin to grab the market away from the American brands that created the demand for the product in the first place. While it may have been brands like Dynamic Discs or Prodigy that created a demand for inexpensive bags by working with Chinese manufacturers, there is no stopping similar Chinese manufacturers from then cutting out Dynamic Discs, Prodigy, and any other known brands by directly shipping their own “brand” to Amazon with the products sold at a lower price. Thus they take away the market share from the businesses that created the demand in the first place.
Taking Over Amazon
While there are many arguments made by patriotic Americans that anything made in China is inferior to US manufacturing, that is a sweeping statement that does not apply in all cases. Yes, China makes inexpensive goods which sometimes cut corners to save costs. But they also manufacture some of the most popular brands that are associated with being high quality and very American. Consider Nike shoes, or Apple iPhones, both manufactured under company supervision in China. Pretty much all of the electronics sold to American households are made in China. From your television to your dishwasher, you are most likely using something made in China on a daily basis. Even name brands like General Electric sold off their appliance division to foreign interests many years ago. Yet those brand names are still respected and owned in American households. The success of a very American retailer known as Walmart is owed in large degree to inexpensive Chinese manufacturing. So it is hard to make sweeping accusations about quality when it comes to Chinese manufacturing. But the retail take-over of small industries, like disc golf, is something that is becoming more rampant, due to the ease of selling through the largest retailer in the world, Amazon.
Why Innovate When You Can Overwhelm?
Let’s take a look at some of the Chinese cloning and market saturation that is taking place on Amazon when it comes to the disc golf market. It comes in different forms– while some of the Chinese made products are sold to American middlemen companies who then brand those products for the disc golf market, there is also a fresh onslaught of direct-to-Amazon products that never touch the hands of American businesses. The marketing of some of those direct-from-China products is laughable to savvy disc golfers, but is still convincing (and very cheap) to casual players or to those who are exploring disc golf for the first time on Amazon. There are also sophisticated marketing campaigns that promote their creativity and sensitivity to the avid disc golfers while selling exact clones of preexisting disc golf products that were built on the backs of the original brands.
Let’s take a look at the top 50 best-selling Disc Golf Starter Sets currently listed on Amazon (screenshot date is 11/8/21). These are sets that are in stock at the moment of this article– out of stock sets that may be popular don’t show up on Amazon’s best-sellers list while they are not available to order. Since some items that are not necessarily Starter Sets end up in this category, those will be crossed out. The circled sets are made in China and shipped directly to Amazon. These generally have several versions of the same discs just rearranged in the photos with a bag added, a towel added, a mini added, or whatever configuration makes it look “different” than listings of the same discs that exist simultaneously. At the moment, the “Crown Me” brand has the most variations in the top 50, but there have been others that have had as many as 12 spots in the top 50 all of the same discs, but with different photos and presentations.
The ones with the green checkmarks are brands that are manufactured in China but as legitimate disc golf brands that have focused their efforts on their disc development and reputation in the disc golf market (like Yikun and X-Com, for example). Those checked brands actually get their discs approved by the PDGA, as apposed to the sets that are only pushed to Amazon to grab market share with no regard or interest in the disc golf market. You’ll see that there are currently 17 of the top 50 spots that have the Chinese sets intended to saturate the Amazon market. Since observing the Top 50 list, I’ve seen times where more than half of the available “top-selling” sets were actually the Chinese sets.
Notice also that certain sets openly try to appear to be from major brands. Look at the #10 “Wen Jian” set that uses the basket graphic from the popular Innova Aviar putter as its main disc stamp.
That is intended to grab attention with a familiar visual cue. Look at others on the list to find the same stamp designs with the exact same discs, just laid out differently for the photo, or paired with different accessories in the attempt to saturate the market with sets that are not meaningfully different from one another. Even the legitimate X-Com set has been offered through different sellers with different listing names, which can cause some confusion about whether or not they are actually different (and they’re not).
Here is a look at the rest of the Top 100 to show how dense the saturation has become. Where are the sets from Discraft? Innova? MVP? Or other established brands? In many cases, they don’t make the top selling lists because they are significantly more expensive than the cheap, Made in China sets that are taking over through shear volume. But you will see them closer to the latter half of the top 100, falling behind the cheap Chinese sets.
While you will see some Discraft sets pop up on this latter half of the Top 100, check out the set in the #62 spot which uses the brand name “ESP” which is a known Discraft plastic name and presents this set in a box to appear more like a recognized brand. Again, they try to use recognized imagery in some cases to grab attention. Now lets take a look at some imagery marketing failures.
Awkward Images Vs Sophisticated Marketing
When clicking on some of these Chinese sets, you can find marketing images that show an obvious lack of knowledge about the game of disc golf. While these images might fool an uninformed mother shopping for her kid who is interested in disc golf, they definitely make experienced disc golfers cringe.
So, as a disc golfer, when was the last time you were in the swimming pool with a couple of bikini-clad women tossing your disc golf driver in the air? Admit it…if that actually happened, there was too much drinking involved. Or when was the last time you took the kids to the beach and danced as you tossed your disc golf disc above your head, as if playing a game of catch? Or how about slapping an image of a disc and your bag randomly onto an existing photo of a person who looks like their throwing a disc, even if the orientation of the disc or the position of the player doesn’t match what should be happening? These are examples of minimal effort when researching a sport and sending merchandise to Amazon.
Now, let us take a look at a more sophisticated listing, probably created by a company or person in the USA, but used to convincingly sell exact Chinese knock-offs of popular, pre-existing disc golf products. These clone products were most likely found on Alibaba.com as offered by the Chinese manufacturers. That allows a “new company” to jump into the market with recognized products at minimal effort and minimal cost. Here is a little bit about this particular brand, as seen on Amazon:
Notice the nice photo of a guy with his dog– nothing more American than that. Then notice the very convincing storyline introducing a name, a hometown, and a blurb about how their products are unique because they “don’t design products for the sole purpose of selling them.” Instead they, “design high quality products that will make our disc golf experience even better.” And then the expression of gratitude and how much fun they have testing their designs, etc.
But now let’s look at the products. Let’s look at the designs that they had fun creating and testing (supposedly). First of all the Infinite Discs Stealth bag, designed in Logan, Utah by Infinite Discs and manufactured in China.
And now the Rogue Iron bag. How many thing are different on this design? How much thought was put into it. Notice that every single stitch, zipper, grommet, except the logo is identical. It is the same bag, made by the same Chinese manufacturer, and released as a new product with minimal effort, thanks to Chinese manufacturer practices:
Now lets take a look at the Inzone Qwik Stik XL with their new head design, followed by the hook design from the Infinite Discs Rescue Retriever:
Is it right to question the dedication of the new brand to the sport of disc golf? No. It could indeed be somebody who loves the sport and wants to make a living selling products in the disc golf market. But the very slick marketing that touts a serious interest in designing quality products is a bit disingenuous when every product is one that can be purchased and rebranded on Alibaba from a manufacturer that is selling a product that was originally designed and sourced from another company. This is a pattern that is being followed to a much greater extent for disc golf than has ever been the case. That could actually be a sign that disc golf is growing and is more publicly recognized than ever. If it weren’t popular, there would be no appeal in cloning or selling the same design through multiple brands. On the other hand, is the market big enough that the cloning won’t hurt the actual creators and innovators? That remains to be seen, because every cloned product sold it a sale that did not go to the brand that financially invested in the original design. This is all part of the cost that comes with the insatiable desire for more affordable manufacturing and less expensive products.
What Can We Do?
Is there a way to help original brands as opposed to clone brands or invasive listings that saturate the Amazon marketplace? Yes.
The Amazon metrics are strongly based upon customer reviews and part of any Chinese investment into a product that ships directly to Amazon comes with a plea (usually for pay) for positive reviews. Many of the reviews and ratings on these new products are solicited as part of the marketing push that gives the product traction. Just a simple five-star review and words like “I loved this disc golf set– it was perfect for my son,” looks completely genuine and innocent. Yet most of those reviews are created in a conscious effort to solicited reviews which are easy to write, say nothing specific about the product, and that establish the required track record in very little time. Amazon’s review and popularity metrics are quickly fooled by such review solicitation– after all, there are many people willing to take free products for a few, simple words and a click on 5 stars, whether that actually used the product or not.
As consumers, we can take a moment to give honest reviews, support original innovation, and be willing to pay a few more dollars so that the companies and livelihoods that are dedicated to the growth of the sport can be rewarded. This article is not meant to villainize all Chinese manufacturers. But it is intended to demonstrate that the invasion into the growing disc golf market has begun. Chinese manufacturers with integrity should be rewarded with continued support by the brands and consumers that built the market in the first place. But Chinese companies that do not respect creative rights and use deceptive practices to grab market share should be ignored until they lose their interest in the market. If nobody buys their cloned products, then those manufacturers will stop trying.