Tag Archives: Conspicuous Consumption

Veblen goods and how to own part of a Birkin Bag

Online trading site Rally Rd has introduced an opportunity to part own various luxury items. For instance you could become part owner of a $61,500 Birkin Bag or top of the range Lamgourghini car. Rally Rd acquire the most noteworthy items from collections and individuals all over the world and make them into “a company”. They then split it into equity shares and open an “Initial Offering” where investors can purchase shares & build a portfolio. After 90 days, investors have the chance to sell shares in-app or add to their position on periodic trading days (through registered broker dealers).

The market for investing in fractions of items otherwise seen as collectibles — and largely reserved for the wealthiest people — has seen an uptick in interest during the pandemic as people spend more time at home. Although there is a potential return on the investment you never get to see your Birkin Bag or Lambourghini. Shares are traded until the owner of the marketplace sells the asset.

Are Birkin Bags Veblen 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.

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

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.

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.

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 global downturn with Coivd-19 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.

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

Lower income extroverts spend more on status enhancing goods

People who are ‘extraverted’ and on low incomes buy more luxury goods than their introverted peers to compensate for the experience of low financial status, finds new UCL research. In Psychological Science, Dr Landis and Dr Gladstone analyse a year of data from more than 700 British bank accounts in 2014. They sort purchases into categories, ranging from high-status (foreign air travel, electronic goods and so on) to low-status (money spent at salvage yards and discount stores). They then correlate the results with those from personality tests taken by the account-holders.

People living on a low income often feel low status in society and spend a higher percentage of their money on goods and services that are perceived to have a high status. Previous research has found that people who are sociable and outgoing care more about their social status than others. The new research shows that when extraverted people have a lower income, they spend proportionately more on status goods than introverts on the same income. At higher incomes, the difference in spending lessens as introverted people buy more luxury goods.

The study analysed thousands of transactions from 718 customers over 12 months. The results took into account other factors that could influence spending habits, such as age, sex, employment status and whether the customers had children. Cash spending was also taken into account.

low income conspicuous cons.pngEach person’s spending data were sorted into a number of spending categories from one (very low status) to five (very high status). High-status categories (i.e., those with average scores of four or five) included foreign air travel, golf, electronics and art institutions, whereas low-status categories (i.e., those with average scores of two or one) included pawnbrokers, salvage yards and discount stores.

The team found the interaction between income and extraversion in predicting spending on luxury goods is significant and emphasize that while this useful in understanding the relationship, further research is needed to see whether the relationship is causal and whether the results are representative of the UK population as a whole.

The study found, though, that the gap widened with poverty.

  • Extroverts with an annual income of £10,850 the 25th percentile of British individual incomes in 2014, spent approximately 65% more on high-status goods than similarly remunerated introverts did.
  • Extroverts with an annual income of £28,470 the 75th percentile, they spent only 14% more. This suggests how keenly extroverts feel about keeping up appearances.

Sources:

  • The Economist “Poor extroverts spend proportionately more on buying status” 26th August 2017
  • UCL – Personality drives purchasing of luxury goods – 23rd August 2017