Thursday, October 29, 2009

Breakthrough at Tiffany's. (Or, my Tiffany epiphany?) Part 1.

So I'm in Tiffany & Co. the other day, killing time (it's a long story), when I noticed the pendant shown at left. I asked to see it. Perhaps because I was wearing the same sweatshirt I wear when I'm grading my team's home field after a day of rain, the salesgirlwho was nine feet tall, rail-thin, and so ultra-made-up that I figured she was either about to audition for America's Top Model or running an ad for her personal services on Craigslist—eyed me skeptically. But lacking a legitimate reason to refuse, and perhaps suspecting that she was being mystery-shopped, she agreed to show it to me.

It was a nice
pendant. Very shiny. That much I will not deny. It had little diamond chips spaced along the chain.* I did not see a price tag.

"So how much is it?" I asked, thereby (a) violating the old J.P. Morgan dictum about elite-level shopping and (b) resolving any doubts the salesgirl may still have had about my unworthiness.

Keeping her composure, she replied matter-of-factly, "Eleven-hundred-ninety-five

"No, you misunderstand," I replied. "I don't want the whole display case. Just the one pendant." OK, I didn't really say that. I do have some degree of savoir faire. But I sure thought it as I gingerly handed the thing back to her.

A few hours later I happened to be in Walmarttalk about culture shock!—where I saw lots of other people who looked as if they'd just come from grading ball fields. And just for the hell of it I went over to Jewelry, where I discovered the item shown at right. It had a nice big price tag on it, plain as day. Now this may surprise you, but it wasn't even $1000. Imagine that! Actually it was $39.95. And if you look closely, you'll notice it even has a shiny little "diamond" near the point.

And at that instant a thought struck me: It occurred to me that the $1195 Tiffany pendant has no purpose except to be affordable only to people who can afford things most other people can't. It exists to be overpriced; that is its raison d'etre. It doesn't do anything that the $40 Walmart model can't do. (In fact neither pendant does anything, a separate but related issue that we'll get to next time.) It makes no tangible, measurable contribution to the progress of humankind. To my eye, it isn't even prettier than the cheapo version. Maybe it was a tad shinier, because one gets the feeling the folks in Tiffany's are polishing their jewelry every 18 seconds in order to sustain the chic vibe. I don't think the Walmart personnel worry quite as much about display appeal; I draw this inference based in part on the fact that a 2-for-1 package of drain cleaner that someone had decided not to buy sat prominently on the corner of the Walmart jewelry counter. None of the sales staff seemed to regard its removal as a priority.

Still, I wasn't buying the drain cleaner. I was buying (or at least looking at) the pendant. The ambiance was irrelevant. Wasn't it?

The desire for glitter and gaud, for status in general, is nothing new. But we in America have broadened the practice and elevated it to an art form. We spent the 20th Century fastidiously detaching value from function, a process that continued apace into the 21st century.

That process continued even
as the nation's financial infrastructure stood at near-collapse. The two are not, I think, unrelated.

In Part 2: How this is killing America.

* Total weight .21 carat, according to the specs. On a wholesale basis these are very inexpensive, proportionally, compared to large intact diamonds.


Martha said...

Hi Steve:

You've inspired me. Just wrote my own blog post re Ray and his ilk, which I thought might interest you (at least, it's a linked mention to SHAM!).

Pat Hanley said...

Steve, check out "Theory of The Leisure Class" for a lengthy discussion of the over-priced pendant phenomenon and how it relates to rapper's entourages, lawns, piano lessons and learning to speak French.

Chad Hogg said...

I've been staring at this phenomenon myself quite a bit recently, while shopping for a vehicle to replace the one I had that died. I needed something that would transport me from point A to point B and do so for many years to come without catastrophically breaking down like my previous vehicle. I cared very little for sunroofs, leather interiors, and so forth, but several vehicles that were otherwise just what I was looking for were outrageously priced because they featured these luxury options.

What is more relevant (perhaps) is that even throwing out the super luxury models and sports cars designed for the rich and famous, you could spend $15,000 for a new sedan or $30,000+ for a new sedan from the same manufacturer. If both drive on the same roads at the same legal speeds, how could one possibly have twice as much value as the other? My only guess is that some people need to drive inexplicably expensive vehicles for the sake of their egos.

Jason said...

Wonderful! I can't wait for part II!

Steve Salerno said...

Re Pat's comment: Veblen's work, which we were encouraged to read in college, focuses mostly on the psychological/sociological aspects of upwardly mobile consumption. Those aspects are certainly worth discussing (and are among the reasons why I said the desire for glitter and gaud is "nothing new")--but they're also mostly intangible. I'm thinking more in terms of certain indisputable economic forces/patterns that are set in motion by these tendencies, which is why there's a Part 2 forthcoming, when I get around to it.

Anonymous said...

You obviously haven't done much shopping, Steve.
Most of us economically challenged types learn very early on that the branded carrier bag, eg Tiffany's, Harrod's or Nieman Marcus, automatically escalates the price to the stratosphere.
It is still just a paper bag but the imagined kudos of carrying such an item down the street has ensured that branded paper carrier bags themselves become coveted status symbols and are treasured and re-used until they fall apart.

And we call ourselves homo sapiens.

LizaJane said...

Hi Steve - If you put on the Tiffany pendant and put on the Walmart pendant, you would feel the difference -- in the quality.

OK, jewelry isn't your thing, but would you play ball with a cheaply made or poorly balanced bat? Hey, it's wood, it's the right shape, you can hit the ball with it. Why pay more? You can make the same argument for musical instruments. There are $50 guitars, $500 guitars, and $5,000 guitars. They all make music. I'm sure you would feel the difference if you played them. And you don't NEED a fancy guitar (or saxophone or whatever). So why "waste" the money?

That said, it is one thing to splurge on a single item that's important to you (or just grabs you), quite another to make splurging "the norm" and live a consistently overindulgent, beyond-your-means lifestyle. Too many Americans do the latter, but that doesn't mean there is no place in a responsible person's life for the former.

Have you never saved up for something you really wanted? Maybe something nobody else thought was "worth the money?" It's a good thing to do and a good thing to teach kids. Either they value the purchase that much more, or they regret wasting their money and don't do it again.

I think a desire for instant gratification is more dangerous than splurging on a luxury item (or something some might find "silly") once in a while. You can't conflate all such spending with wasteful, profligate behavior.

I recently bought a strand of truly magnificent pearls. I could have spent less than half as much for a very nice, good-quality strand. I debated for a while, but finally decided on the one that made my heart skip a beat. And no, it did not lead to our current economic crisis. I (and my husband) have no debt beyond our very small mortgage. Not because we're rich, but because MOST of the time, we live frugally and without a lot of "flash." Yeah, we drive a Hyundai.

I can tell you, that Tiffany necklace will last a lifetime, and longer. It's better made, of better materials. They'll clean and maintain it for free, and they'll replace it if something goes wrong. I am not a label-oriented person. I refuse to wear anything with a designer's name blazed across it -- if they want me to advertise, they can pay me. I'm also not a believer in conspicuous consumption. I don't think that having things of monetary value gives YOU any additional value, of any sort.

But sometimes you want something of real quality -- whether to give as a gift, to pass down to your kids, to celebrate a milestone, or just because it's something you've always wanted. My dad gave my mom a Tiffany necklace (not the heart pendant, but "Diamonds By The Yard") at dinner after my first ballet recital. She took it off for the first time since that night, and handed it to me, as we drove to my high-school graduation. I plan to do the same with my oldest daughter. It wouldn't be the same with a cheaply made Walmart necklace -- and not only because it likely would have fallen apart years before.

That doesn't mean there's no place in the world for knock-offs or "good-enough" stuff. It's always better to go cheap on the trends. But some occasions and some items warrant the good stuff, if you can afford them. And no, not to impress others, but for yourself. It's not always or necessarily about status.

Stever Robbins said...

An engineer by training, I pretty much always evaluate things by their function or usefulness. Status means little to me, though I'll play the status game if it's the only way to reach a goal.

The whole clothes/jewelry thing writ large has always frustrated me. I like jeans and T shirts, and the entire dance of casual, business casual, business formal, dress-right-to-show-you-respect-someone has struck me as worse than useless. (It encourages us to confuse competence with the ability to wear a uniform.)

A famous speaker once chided me for wearing a suit onstage that cost less than $2,000. Silly me; I'd spent all my planning time thinking about how to give my audience high-quality information. Apparently I should have spent it at Neiman Marcus.

Steve Salerno said...

LZ: I think the bigger question is: Why wear a pendant at all? What does it "do"? Isn't talking about the quality of a pendant (and btw, I'm not at all sure I buy your premise, which appears to reduce to "you get what you pay for") a little bit like talking about which invisible outfit the Emperor should wear to an important presentation?

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I'll address such issues (and more, I hope) in Part 2.

Jenny said...

Great topic, Steve! Relevant to what I am looking at today. Have been sitting here musing (nice to have a day off to do that) about what prompted me to fill out a form for a $3 rebate on a new pen I bought recently. Three whole dollars! Yes, imagine that. Somebody in "Dept. A" at the pen company is going to cut me a check and put it in the mail; I will open that envelope when it arrives and feel the same sense of glee I felt all those years ago when I sent off for a transistor radio in the shape of an orange. (An orange juice company offered that particular deal.)

So, I ask myself (again) about the value of time in relation to money. Also, about human motivation. Somehow this new pen seems a little more special. Somehow. I bought it for a specific purpose, too.

I like Martha's posting, too. One wonders what real self-help looks like.


WV: handem

roger o'keefe said...

So I guess we're all supposed to wear tattered sweatshirts and Timex watches at all times? Are you watching the World Series on a 27 inch b/w Ike-era model Sears TV with rabbit ears, Steve?

RevRon's Rants said...

I tend to side with Stever on this one. While there are some things on which I'll spend more than I absolutely have to, that extra expense is for function, rather than flash. I wouldn't think twice about spending $200 on a professional woodworking tool like a router or belt sander, even knowing that I could buy one of lesser quality for $50. The difference is in the things that truly matter to me: function and durability. Same goes for my watch, a Luminox that cost a couple hundred, but which functions better (and much longer) under duress than would a $15 Timex.

On the other hand, I have no use for things that offer only a feigned implication of status. While that Tiffany pendant might well be of a higher quality than the WalMart version, even the cheaper piece of bling holds no appeal to me.

Back in the '60s, Robert Crumb created an underground comic book series called "Despair Comix." I remember on the front cover of one, there was a drawing of throngs of people milling around some urban shopping district. The caption: "Thousands of people fill our streets, wandering aimlessly, in search of some unknown ego fulfillment." Crumb's cheese had long since slid off his cracker, but at times, he really did hit the nail on the proverbial head (note the sly reversion to woodworking analogy!).

Sharon From Penn State said...

Yeesh: I only buy jewelry that I can't make myself, and only from, or someone who makes jewelry.

No, the jewelry doesn't "do" anything, some people like pretty things. However, I agree w/Steve to some degree: there are things that exist to be bought be the crazy-rich who can afford it. However, there "status" to the handmade jewelry too: I am sure you have heard of the movement among the youngsters to buy handmade goods. Those handmade objects have status too! So, I guess I haven't escaped the old status conundrum, have I?

Anonymous said...

Bauble wearing has to be one of the things that everyone from Manhatten to the Congo do. Do they do lip plates in Tiffanies?

Anonymous said...

I think LizaJane makes an excellent point, Steve, and it's about the relevance of aesthetics versus status. I personally have always found Tiffany's jewelry ugly, and other supposed status symbols, such as Rolex watches, Hummers, and Louis Vuitton luggage, crossing the line to hideous. (And I entirely agree: If someone wants me to wear a snadwich board advertising their brand, they can pay me.) My own taste runs to one-of-a-kind and heirloom pieces. But if a stunningly beautiful opal or a string of luminous antique pearls gives me delight every time I see it/wear it, simply for the pure and joyous beauty of it, I think it does serve a utilitarian purpose, since, by enhancing my appreciation of beauty, it enhances my appreciation for all that is beautiful in our world. This is the kind of magic I can believe in!

RevRon's Rants said...

Anon 3:18, I get your point. I feel fortunate that I live with an exquisitely beautiful woman, in a place that offers a breathtaking sunset almost every day. The latter, of course, only costs me the time it takes to observe it. The former costs a bit more. :-)

My point is that aesthetics and ownership are wholly different entities. While they share some common elements, one need not own something to appreciate its beauty. In fact, sometimes the act of possession can actually diminish the beauty one perceives.

Anonymous said...

Come to think of it, Salerno would look quite the dandy with a lip plate and a penis gourd. Go on Steve, set the trend.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 9:23: Been there, done that.

Sarsabu said...

My Swatch keeps better time than my Raymond Weil.

mojo said...

Just the other day I was whining on my blog about an annoying commercial--for Ferraro Rocher chocolates--and while looking them up on Wikipedia I was introduced to a phrase I had not heard before--an "aspirational brand". Which is something that is priced higher than usual, and marketed as something usually only available to snooty rich people, thereby inspiring desire in those who are NOT snooty rich people.

Sometimes expensive brands are of higher quality--I can think of some that are much higher quality, and (in my opinion) worth the added expense--and sometimes you're just buying a name. For all of its gold-colored foil and European-accented voiceovers, turns out Ferraro Rocher is made by the same people who make Tic Tacs.

Steve Salerno said...

Isn't Ferraro Rocher French for "pretentious a-holes"?

Anonymous said...

Here is my Tiffany's epiphany: Their little blue box makes women go crazy - it's like an orgasm-in-a-box.

Last year I opened up a corporate account with Tiffany & Co. and I sent out wineglasses to 200 female clients. These are the same glasses I could have gotten at Stein Mart for about 70% cheaper. But it's not about the gift; it's about the box.

The results were astounding - my January and February Revenue was off-the-charts. The women all mentioned the "beautiful glasses from Tiffany's". They brought me more clients and more business than I could have imagined. My competitors have really suffered through the recession; my business grew by 45%.

The moral of the story is that luxury goods from places like Tiffany & Co. and Gucci should be given as gifts, not consumed by the purchaser. Buy something for a client which you know they want, but would not buy for themselves. That's how to make luxury work for you.

Personally, my wineglasses came from Stein Mart.

Elizabeth said...

Hey, people, don't dis Ferrero Rocher -- they are yummy. Nothing pretentious about them, though the name may sound so to Americans. It's an old Italian chocolatier business (Ferrero is their family name), very well known in Europe for years for its delicious concoctions. I was delighted (an understatement) to see Ferreros become widely available in American stores in the recent years. The coconut Raffaello is my favorite, and I can't wait for the pistachio and lemon varieties to arrive here. ASAP preferably.

If you haven't tried FRs, pick'em up on your next trip to the grocery or department store (Target and Walmart -- yes! -- have them). You won't regret it. They are very reasonably priced, especially when we consider their quality. Much less expensive (and much better, IMO) than Godiva chocolates (talk about the snob factor there).

BTW, if FR people are looking for a spokesperson, one that would spontaneously exude genuine enthusiasm for their products, I'm available. :)

P.S. And yes, they make Tic Tacs, but so what? I guess the aura of pretentiousness comes from FR relative obscurity (so far) in the US; but in Europe, every kid age 2 to 102 has known FR chocolates intimately for years (their Kinder eggs with little toys in them, or Kinder Bueno chocolate bars are among most popular children's treats). I've seen those in American stores recently as well. (I'd recommend Kinder Buenos for adults, too. Yum.)