A Byron Bay small business owner has spoken out about the “heartbreaking” experience of finding picnic rugs very similar to those her business produces on the shelves of Aldi at less than a third of the price.
While Wandering Folk’s decorative picnic rugs retail at $190, a product featuring similar designs and features is on sale at the budget supermarket for $49.99.
“A heartbreaking thing has happened,” Wandering Folk founder Sharnee Thorpe says in an Instagram video, before explaining that Aldi has released a rug that “looks to be ‘inspired by’ Wandering Folk”.
She says there is nothing the small business can do, “except for educate everyone on always supporting creatives”.
Get daily business news.
The latest stories, funding information, and expert advice. Free to sign up.
“Big retailers will always seek out boutique brands to follow and I just want to remind you all that the creatives behind brands work so hard to bring ideas to life,” she says.
“It really is like a stab to the heart when you see this happen.”
View this post on Instagram
So far, the video has racked up more than 86,000 views, with followers voicing their support for the founder and business.
Speaking to SmartCompany, Thorpe stresses that she does not believe Aldi has broken any laws here. However she points to some of the similarities between the products — the floral print, waterproof base, stitch lines and corner tassels in particular.
“We just want to present the two products side by side and let people make up their own mind,” she says.
That said, being alerted to Aldi’s rugs was “really upsetting” to the founder.
“I think my actual words to my staff were ‘I think am going to cry’.”
This is not the first small business to become an ‘inspiration’ for a larger corporation.
Back in 2015, a children’s toymaker found a product very similar to its own on sale in Kmart for as little as $2, while Target has also been accused of ripping off the designs of small businesses that make children’s clothes.
In 2018, the founder of nutrition and weight-loss consultancy Great Ideas in Nutrition told SmartCompany how a multinational healthcare company released a product very similar to hers, leaving her feeling “absolutely powerless”.
Small businesses work hard to stand out and define their point of difference, Thorpe explains. When larger brands release similar items, it can be hard to compete on price.
Speaking to SmartCompany, John MacPhail, commercial lawyer and partner at Lynch Meyer, says Aldi in particular “has got form” when it comes to allegations of product copying.
It has also been to court over disputes with big brands, and have never lost to date, he says, adding that there are likely more cases that have been settled.
“They know where the line is, and they’re quite sophisticated in terms of going right up to that line, but never going over it.”
Responding to the case about Wandering Folk, a spokesperson from Aldi told SmartCompany allegations in the press are “the first correspondence we have on the matter”.
“We will definitely review any correspondence that is shared with our business and will respond accordingly,” they added.
What can SMEs do about copycats?
For the small businesses providing the ‘inspiration’ in these cases, there is unfortunately not a whole lot they can do about it.
Business owners can register designs, securing 10 years’ protection covering the ‘visual features’ of an original article or product, MacPhail explains.
But it’s a cumbersome and expensive process, usually requiring support from a professional. Even then, it doesn’t necessarily protect against ‘inspiration’.
For small businesses, it’s generally not feasible.
It’s also tricky to argue a legal case, he adds, as most creatives are, at one point or another, inspired by other creatives and the products they make.
“Most of the time with these cases, when you dig down, actually everyone stands on the shoulders of giants,” he says.
On the other hand, MacPhail suggests there could be an upside here. By taking her story to social media, and then mainstream media, Thorpe has potentially made thousands of people aware of her products who wouldn’t have been otherwise.
Judging by the comments on the original video, her existing followers are also doubling down in their support of the brand.
As MacPhail notes, there is unlikely to be much crossover between consumers likely to pay $50 for a picnic rug at Aldi and those looking to part with $190 for an artisan, hand-designed picnic rug from a Byron Bay boutique.
Often, the best course of action can be to do exactly what Thorpe did — to take to social media, inform her followers and inspire as many people as possible to buy the real thing.
“Overall we would have much preferred for this whole situation to not have happened,” Thorpe says.
“But one possible positive is our Instagram post on the subject has received a lot of interest and support, which we are really grateful for.
“This could have led to some more people finding out about us and also encouraged people to support smaller businesses and creatives.”