Tag Archives: Veblen Good

Veblen Goods and inconspicuous consumption?

Conspicuous consumption was introduced by economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class. It is a term used to describe the lavish spending on goods and services acquired mainly for the purpose of displaying income or wealth. In the mind of a conspicuous consumer, such display serves as a means of attaining or maintaining social status.

Economists and sociologists often cite the 1980’s as a time of extreme conspicuous consumption. The yuppie materialised as the key agent of conspicuous consumption in the US. Yuppies didn’t need to purchase BMWs or Mercedes’ cars for example; they did so in order to show off their wealth. This period had its origins in the 1930’s with Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Fredrick von Hayek – the latter being the author of “The Road to Serfdom”, in which he said that social spending rather than private consumption would lead inevitably to tyranny. Margaret Thatcher (UK Prime Minister 1979-1990) and Ronald Reagan (US President 1981-1989) believed in this ideology and cut taxes and privatised the commanding heights in a move to a free market environment.

VeblenSo-called Veblen goods (also as know as snob value goods) reverse the normal logic of economics in that the higher the price the more demand for the product – see graph below

Over the last three decades conspicuous consumption has accelerated at a phenomenal level in the industrial world. Self-gratification could no longer be delayed and an ever-increasing variety of branded products became firmly ingrained within our individuality. The myth that the more we have the happier we become is self-perpetuating: the more we consume, the less able we are to tackle the myth.

However a recently published book The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett looks at how the power of material goods as symbols of social position has diminished due to their accessibility. Although the lower income groups must dedicate a greater proportion of their income to basic necessities, they spend a higher share of their income to conspicuous consumption than the rich do. Between 1996 and 2014 the richest 1% fell further behind the national average in the percentage of their spending dedicated to bling. The middle income quintile went the other way: by 2014 they spent 35% more than the average as a percentage of their annual expenditure.

According to Elizabeth Currid-Halkett the higher income groups have moved away from buying stuff – materialism – to more subtle expenditures that reveal status and knowledge. The most common of them being education for their children.

Those in the top 10% of income earners now allocate four time as much of their spending to school and university compared to 1996, whereas for other income groups spending has remained fairly constant. However one could say that fees for both school and university have increased over that period of time. The upper class also invest heavily in domestic services such as housekeepers, freeing up time that the less fortunate must spend on chores.

Rather than frittering away that precious leisure time on frivolities, as Veblen’s leisure class did, they devote it to enriching experiences, like attending the opera, holidaying in far-off lands and working out at fancy gyms. Their children, by tagging along and thus absorbing this “cultural capital”, develop the sophistication needed to win admission to selective universities, vastly increasing the odds that they will form the next generation’s elite. The modern equivalent of Victorian worsted-stocking wearers are hipsters, who imitate the wealthy’s penchant for farmers’ markets and fair-trade lattes, even if they cannot afford a cruise to Antarctica.  Source: The Economist – August 5th 2017

Supreme and Economics

SupremeStudents have long been talking about brands and none other than that of Supreme. Supreme was created in the 1980’s and was originally a brand which associated itself with the skateboard industry. There are currently 11 stores worldwide with three in the USA and six in Japan as well as store in Paris and London. In January this year Louis Vuitton held a fashion show featuring LV and Supreme as the two brands joined forces. Since then pop-up stores featuring the collaboration were opened on June 30, 2017 in Sydney, Seoul, Tokyo, Paris, London, Miami, and Los Angeles. It was the London pop-up that was recently the focus of an article in 1843 magazine of The Economist.

At 10am on Day One of the sale, a queue of about 600 people stretched down the Strand and along Surrey Street. Martin, Richard, Alex and Adita were all there. Running the queue for Louis Vuitton was security specialist Lex Showumni. “This is my first experience with Supreme. I was told it was going to be crazy, a lot of people pushing and shoving, but we haven’t experienced that so far.” The Supreme faithful have their own, slightly dubious, process of queue-management based on attendance and standing. It mostly works, but some people were unhappy: a trader had left the head of the queue to withdraw £12,000 from an ATM. He returned without the cash having lost his number 1 spot; eventually, after some animated discussion, he slipped back in near the front.

Each customer was admitted to the store for 15 minutes and allowed to buy six items. Successful trophy hunters included Ari Petrou, with a flipped T-shirt (around £400), that he was definitely keeping. Jeremy Wilson bagged a coveted red-logo baseball shirt (£730) that he planned to resell.

Within an hour, three main secondary exchanges had been set up outside the official store: one in the Pret A Manger, the other beneath a tree, and the third next to a municipal toilet. One dealer, who asked not to be named, explained that he had paid ten people a set fee to get early places in the queue and would give them a cut of the resale value of anything they could get their hands on. “It’s business!” he laughed. Wodges of cash were exchanged and stashed in newly acquired Louis Vuitton bags.

Invariably the hype that surrounds the pop-up store and the limited supply creates a situation where people get extremely anxious and are prepared to pay significant amounts of money for what could be classed as normal consumer goods.

There are certain economic concepts behind this.

Inelastic Demand – people who buy Supreme are are not price sensitive to purchasing items – a flipped T-shirt (around £400) seems quite excessive. A higher price has little impact on the quantity sold. In fact it maybe a Veblen Good – see below.

Limited supply – there is an artificially low supply of the product to maintain its uniqueness and ultimately it becomes very scarce. This creates excess demand which drives up the price

VeblenVeblen Goods – Conspicuous consumption was introduced by economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class. It is a term used to describe the lavish spending on goods and services acquired mainly for the purpose of displaying income or wealth. In the mind of a conspicuous consumer, such display serves as a means of attaining or maintaining social status. So-called Veblen goods (also as know as snob value goods) reverse the normal logic of economics in that the higher the price the more demand for the product – see graph.

 

The Birkin Handbag – is it a Veblen Good?

Conspicuous consumption was introduced by economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class. It is a term used to describe the lavish spending on goods and services acquired mainly for the purpose of displaying income or wealth. In the mind of a conspicuous consumer, such display serves as a means of attaining or maintaining social status.

Economists and sociologists often cite the 1980’s as a time of extreme conspicuous consumption. The yuppie materialised as the key agent of conspicuous consumption in the US. Yuppies didn’t need to purchase BMWs or Mercedes’ cars for example; they did so in order to show off their wealth. This period had its origins in the 1930’s with Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Fredrick von Hayek – the latter being the author of “The Road to Serfdom”, in which he said that social spending rather than private consumption would lead inevitably to tyranny. Margaret Thatcher (UK Prime Minister 1979-1990) and Ronald Reagan (US President 1981-1989) believed in this ideology and cut taxes and privatised the commanding heights in a move to a free market environment.

So-called Veblen goods (also as know as snob value goods) reverse the normal logic of economics in that the higher the price the more demand for the product – see graph below

VeblenOver the last three decades conspicuous consumption has accelerated at a phenomenal level in the industrial world. Self-gratification could no longer be delayed and an ever-increasing variety of branded products became firmly ingrained within our individuality. The myth that the more we have the happier we become is self-perpetuating: the more we consume, the less able we are to tackle the myth.

The Economist 1843 bi-monthly magazine had a very good article on Hermès’s Birkin handbag (named after Jane Birkin, an Anglo-French actress who spilled the contents of a overfull straw bag in front of Jean-Louis Dumas, Hermès’s chief executive) and how it has become one of the world’s most expensive – prices start at $7,000; in June Christie’s Hong Kong sold a matte Himalayan crocodile-skin Birkin with a ten-carat diamond-studded white-gold clasp and lock for $300,168. The rationale for its expense is that it is hand crafted and can take up to 18 hours to complete although the production cost is estimated to be around $800.

Birkin Bag

One would think that this would be a Veblen Good – a good in which the higher the price the more demanded. However there are a couple of ways that the Birkin handbag is not.

1. The bag is not all that conspicuous as although most people can identify Gucci, Louis Vuitton or Chanel, a Birkin is not so easy to find. In fact it is an inconspicuous but expensive bag. This theory was explained in the article “Signalling status with luxury goods: the role of brand prominence” from the Journal of Marketing (2010). It divided the high income earners into two groups;

Parvenus – who want to associate themselves with other high income groups and distinguish themselves from those who do not have material wealth.

Patricians –  who want to signal to other people in their high income bracket and not to the masses. They are of the belief that more expensive luxury goods aimed at them will have less obvious branding than cheaper products made by the same company. This was achieved with smaller logos for more expensive items and larger ones for cheaper goods which are aimed at the masses. People who cannot afford the luxury items will buy the big logo items (louder products) and this is where the counterfeiters have a field day.

2. Normally producers of Veblen goods should raise the price till the point where the demand curve starts to follow it normal shape – downward sloping from left to right. However with Birkin they maintain its exclusivity not by raising the price but by limiting the supply. Unlike other Veblen goods you just can’t walk into a shop and buy a Birkin bag – you have to place an order and wait for it to arrive. But you would wonder why they don’t sell more and make more money? It is a supply constraint – limited availability of high-quality skins and craftspeople to make them – it takes two years training. Hermès suggests, Birkins are mined, not simply made.

Commercial Reasons to limit supply of Birkins

Rationing by supply rather than price does make good commercial sense for the following reasons:

1. It gives Hermès a buffer as if demand drops, sales will not.

2. It creates excess demand for the bags, which overflows into demand for other Hermès products – wallets, belts, beach towels etc.

3. Profitability in the short run would reduce its exclusiveness as the main buyers of the bags would eventually be those concerned with social climbing. Therefore the rich may lose interest in the bags and so will those that aspire to be like them.

However I not sure Hermès actually want you to buy their amazingly expensive bag.

Should we stop consumption?

Geoffrey Miller is his book – Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behaviour – examines conspicuous consumption in order to rectify marketing’s poor understanding of human spending behaviour and consumerist culture. His thesis is that marketing influences people—particularly the young—that the most effectual means to show that status is through consumption choices, rather than conveying such traits as intelligence and personality through more natural means of communication, such as simple conversation. He argues that marketers still tend to use naive models of human nature that are uninformed by advances in evolutionary psychology and behavioural ecology. As a result, marketers “still believe that premium products are bought to display wealth, status, and taste, and they miss the deeper mental traits that people are actually wired to display—traits such as kindness, intelligence, and creativity.

The recent recession has sent out a few mixed messages. Firstly there has been the reduction in consumption as people’s credit lines have dried up but there are those that believe that you should spend more to maintain growth and employment in the economy. With household budgets being very tight smarter consumption rather than less consumption has been advocated by Geoffrey Miller. He refers to this as more ethical consumption where the production of produce does not involve the abuse of natural resources or the exploitation of people or animals.

Increase in supply of Russian sex workers and prices go up?

veblen GoodI found this article from Michael Cameron’s blog “Sex, Drugs and Economics” – Michael is a senior lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of Waikato, Hamilton. New Zealand. He spotted an report from The Moscow Times that said:

In the Urals, sex workers have raised prices by between 50 and 100 percent, Uralpolit.ru said Wednesday, citing unnamed clients of prostitutes.

He made a very good point in that the paper talked of an increase in sex tariff inflation with the influx of sex workers fleeing war-torn Ukraine. The new competition is forcing local sex workers to hike their rates in order to pay their bills, the report said.

If this is the case the demand curve for sex services must be upward sloping – there is an increase in the supply of sex workers but prices are going up? Normally with increased competition with more supply prices drop. These goods/services that have an upward sloping demand curve and are know as Veblen goods after economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen who wrote about conspicuous consumption in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class. It is a term used to describe the lavish spending on goods and services acquired mainly for the purpose of displaying income or wealth. In the mind of a conspicuous consumer, such display serves as a means of attaining or maintaining social status.

That doesn’t seem a particularly likely scenario for sex services. Neither are sex services consistent with other types of goods that have upward-sloping demand (Giffen goods, goods with network effects, goods with bandwagon effects).

More likely, Uralpolit.ru and the Moscow Times have demonstrated temporary economic illiteracy. Increased supply doesn’t increase prices. On the other hand, inflation does increase prices and that is what is being observed.