from the Wall Street Journal of October 15's book reviews. I wonder to
myself, how does one reach to the other side in a constructive way that may
influence rather than insult.
In the Lap of Luxury ,
And Paying for It
By ROB WALKER
If you pay even casual attention to consumer trends, you may well have
noticed that "premium" goods and services are thriving in practically every
category -- Panera sandwiches, Sub-Zero refrigerators, Starbucks coffee,
Callaway golf clubs, BMW cars. And if you pay any attention to economic
trends, you probably won't be surprised to hear that the top fifth of
American households ranked by income saw their earnings rise faster than any
other group between 1970 and 2000 -- by 70%, in fact, in real dollars -- and
now control 63% of the country's net worth. Finally, most observers of
social behavior probably have a sense that it's not just the top fifth
buying "new luxury" goods: Practically everyone is willing to pay a premium
in at least one category, partly because shopping is now a source of
emotional fulfillment and meaning for many.
All this has been written about before, both by those who applaud the
democratization of luxury and taste and by those who deplore the
democratization of selfishness and conspicuous consumption. Michael J.
Silverstein, of the Boston Consulting Group, and Neil Fiske, his former
colleague and now the president of Bath & Body Works, are in the applauding
camp. Their "Trading Up: The New American Luxury" (Portfolio, 316 pages,
$26.95) waves away the likes of Juliet Schor's "The Overspent American" and
assures us that the "New Luxury is good news for America" because it "offers
a new kind of emotional engagement" to consumers and gives business leaders
"a new way to think about growth, profitability, and the art of fulfilling
Consumer goods engage the emotions -- even, it turns out, washer-dryers.
The business leaders are the target readers, as the book is set up to help
them cash in on the trend. Along the way, "Trading Up" offers plenty of
ammunition to naysayers: Messrs. Silverstein and Fiske draw on many
interviews with New Luxury consumers, and they often come across as fairly
shallow and unpleasant people. "The quality of our appliances represents
us," one woman declares after bragging about her kitchen setup. Other women
talk about spending their way through breakups in bouts of therapeutic or
"revenge" shopping. A Callaway fan bluntly tells the authors that "I feel
good, I feel equal" when his fancy clubs help him beat them at golf. "I may
make a lot less money than you do, but I think I have a better life." Later
the same guy explains another of his "luxury" habits this way: "When I'm on
a date, if I say 'Give me a Sam Adams,' I know she knows I'm special and I
have some taste." If that's true, it probably says more about his taste in
women than in beer.
Whatever you make of the pros and cons of the trend, Messrs. Silverstein and
Fiske have gathered a slew of case studies and some fascinating material.
While the emotional component of shopping and marketing is something others
have addressed, it's still surprising to find that it apparently applies
even to such workaday items as the washer-dryer. The authors say that they
spoke to owners of Whirlpool's premium-priced Duet model and "found an
emotional connection stronger than we have seen in any other category."
Whirlpool, they add, is now pursuing a "laundry room as family hub"
Messrs. Silverstein and Fiske frequently return to the idea of the emotional
connection between consumers and their purchases, but one interesting aspect
of this they hint at but never quite say aloud. There seems to be a
conundrum built into the "trading up" idea. A major theme among the
entrepreneurs in the book is that, as one puts it, "sophistication and taste
are now within reach of the middle class." Yet the one characteristic that
nearly all the model companies seem to enjoy is high profit margins.
Shouldn't "sophisticated" or "savvy" (a word the authors apply to younger
New Luxury adherents in particular) consumers and high margins have trouble
Emotion, presumably, is the key. ...
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