Showing posts with label consumers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label consumers. Show all posts

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Drive to Luxury: Commodity Fetishism or Innate Human Need?

Over the last several decades, across the globe, there has been a marked increase in consumers' collective demand for luxury goods.  What are luxury goods and why do consumers seem to express such an insatiable demand for them?  While most researchers cannot agree on a standard definition for luxury goods, they generally agree that it is any consumer product or item that is not a true "necessity."

In other words, access to potable water is a necessity to survive in the world, but owning a diamond-studded watch is not.

Some researchers argue that the luxury marketplace focuses the consumer on a perceived need to belong to an elite group and manifests desire for extremely high quality products, often far in excess of actual need.

Some political commentators on the left have argued that luxury goods are a negative form of "commodity fetishism," a term coined by Karl Marx. Marx decried the capitalistic drive toward exclusionary private property and seemingly irrational desire for classist exclusion that he believed luxury goods represent.

He argued that humans were encouraged to ascribe irrational value to arbitrary materials (such as gold or diamonds), which then are perceived as having a false "intrinsic" value in the marketplace.  He argued that such exclusion was designed to oppress the working classes, and served no other socially beneficial goal.

Yet, despite persistent economic turbulence and political instability in many emerging markets, the global luxury goods market remains largely robust.  Indeed, the pursuit of luxury has been a sustained growth trend, even in societies that have experienced substantial political perils.

But is this trend just a blip, or a new long-term reality?

I contend that the drive toward luxury is a positive feature of normal human economic and psychological development, and not just a short-term phenomenon or an irrational manifestation of oppressive capitalism gone awry.

As any human society develops, its' collective needs and consumer preferences will gravitate from satisfying the lower-level human needs (such as general stores selling staple household goods) toward increasing demand for brands that represent quality, the respect of others and social achievement.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in his groundbreaking 1943 paper "A Theory of Human Motivation" in Psychological Review:

In essence, Maslow argued that all human behavior can be analyzed within the general framework of this pyramid, representing a dynamic progression toward higher thought processes and a greater degree of social functioning as one's temporal needs are met.

In other words, once a person's immediate physical needs and safety/security are satisfied  he will gravitate toward forming communities and families, and eventually, trend toward morality and achieve self-actualization.  Without one's lower-level needs met, that person -- and eventually his entire society -- will flounder.

From the perspective of predicting and analyzing consumer behavior, Maslow’s hierarchy can be thought of as also predicting macro-level social mobility and consumer preferences.  Such a model allows one to understand trends in demographics, and even develop sound long-term financial and investment strategies.

In other words, in a properly functioning society where social mobility is fluid, eventually, the retail options will become higher-end, and luxury goods retailers will move in.  The “local hardware store” will be replaced by a mass market retailer.  The mass market retailer eventually will be replaced by the shopping mall.  The shopping mall eventually becomes filled with luxury goods retailers.

Therefore, over time, as societies economically, psychologically and demographically evolve, luxury goods should become both desirable and attainable.

Financial data bears this trend out. Standard & Poors Global Consumer Enterprises Index is comprised of thirty of the largest publicly-traded companies in the GICS consumer discretionary sector that meet specific investability requirements.  The index provides exposure to leading publicly-listed companies in developed markets, which meet minimum international revenue exposure requirements.  100% of the companies included relate to consumer discretionary spending.  

Since this custom Index was created by S&P in 2009, it has demonstrated 5-year annualized returns of 25% growth, an astounding rate of return: 

Empirical consumer survey data bear out this trend, as well.  In a recent survey conducted by Empathica Consumer Insights Panel, the largest reported reason that consumers made a luxury purchase was to "reward themselves" (31.9%), although many consumers also indicated they were finally getting around to buying a luxury item that they had previously delayed purchasing (17.5%).  

Others bought a luxury good for a significant other (12.5%), or said they had extra money to spend and just wanted one (11.5%).  Despite the recent recession, three out of four consumers indicated that they perceived that there are the same or even more luxury brands available today than there were two to three years ago, making this luxury goods market more competitive than ever.  Interestingly, 28% of consumers also report that they will tell others about their luxury purchase through social media sites like Twitter, Facebook or blogs.

Therefore, consumers consistently express a deep need to have the ability to "reward themselves" through the purchase of a luxury good that was not a true necessity.  The approval, perceptions and respect of others played a critical role, as well.

Over time, I predict that this drive toward luxury is here to stay, as it represents the innate human drive to progress toward higher levels of achievement and acquire the respect of others, and not simply irrational exuberance or the exploitation of artificial demand.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Does Donald Trump's Branding Empire Go Too Far?

Billionaire real estate developer Donald Trump is considered one of the most successful tycoons in America, particularly when it comes to branding and self-promotion.

Trump coined the quip "YOU'RE FIRED" on his hit network television show The Apprentice, which he unsuccessfully tried to trademark.

But, according to New York's Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Trump went too far when branding his "Trump University," and committed outright fraud on those who invested in attending the costly seminars.

FoxNews is reporting that the real estate mogul's "Trump University" duped students into paying as much as $35,000 to attend the 3-day seminar, but quickly discovered it was a sham.

"Trump University engaged in deception at every stage of consumers' advancement through costly programs and caused real financial harm," Schneiderman said. "Trump University, with Donald Trump's knowledge and participation, relied on Trump's name recognition and celebrity status to take advantage of consumers who believed in the Trump brand."

According to official court papers, Schneiderman is suing the program, as well as Trump personally as the university chairman, and the former president of the university, in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan.  He accuses them each of engaging in persistent fraud, illegal and deceptive conduct and violating federal state consumer protection laws.  The $40 million the suit demands would be distributed as restitution to consumers.

New York State Education Department officials had ordered Trump to change the name of his enterprise years ago, saying it lacked an education license and didn't meet the legal definitions of a university.  In 2011 it was renamed the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative, but it has been repeatedly accused by consumers in several civil lawsuits of failing to fulfill its advertised claims.

True to form, Donald Trump shot back, denying the allegations and claiming the Attorney General's lawsuit is "politically motivated," and tantamount to "extortion."

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Online Electric Car Sales May Be Banned in North Carolina: Consumer Protection or Corporate Protectionism?

Tesla Motors Headquarters in Silicon Valley
/ Wikimedia Commons
Fox News is reporting that an effort is underway in the North Carolina legislature to effectively prohibit the Palo Alto, California-based Tesla Motors car company from directly selling its popular electric cars online to consumers located within the Tarheel state.

Consumer protection is the ostensible rationale offered by the state's legislators who have introduced a bill that would effectively require that a franchised local dealership actually sell the electric cars to consumers.
Tesla's Roadster / Wikimedia Commons

Tesla is known for setting up showrooms that display and allow inspection of the sample electric cars, but the actual sale of the car is transacted entirely online.  By cutting out the franchised dealer as the "middleman," Tesla effectively removes local dealerships from the process.  Reportedly, as many as 80 Tesla electric cars have already been sold to North Carolina residents.

Tesla says that its time-intensive customer service model just won't translate well to franchised dealers, and that most consumers would laugh at the notion that they're better served by the existing system, which requires an unnecessary local transaction. Tesla said the dealers' true interest is maintaining total control over the retail auto industry.

Experts note that Tesla could try to lobby for a federal law or seek a ruling from federal courts that would apply across the U.S. That strategy could include making a case based on the U.S. Constitution's Commerce Clause, which says only Congress can regulate interstate commerce.  Courts have also held that the Constitution forbids localities from discriminating against out-of-state companies, solely to protect locals.

However, the car company would need to prove that the legislature was targeting it specifically when it passes the proposed law, and that the consumer protection rationale is a pretext.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Seven Dollar Toaster - How Brands Decline in a Disposable Economy

In 2012, I purchased a Toro brand lawmower at Home Depot for $400.  This lawnmower was supposedly "guaranteed to start."  After only 3 uses in 1 month, the mower simply and inexplicably refused to start again.  
After sending a personal letter to the CEO of Home Depot (that he actually responded to, to his credit), the retailer decided to replace the unit with a new one.  I used the replacement lawnmower only 2 times so far in 2013.  Now, the second unit refuses to start.
A quick visit to reveals that this Toro brand lawnmower received 38 ratings, 24 of which were only 1 star, the lowest rating possible on that site. Customer comments such as "piece of junk," "buy anything else," "broke after 3 weeks," disgusted" and "definition of a lemon," can only lead to the conclusion that Toro may end up facing yet another class action lawsuit.
But, in all honesty, what mass market brands haven't demonstrated a notable decline in quality in recent years?  This dramatic drop-off in quality that almost all household brands are exhibiting is called the "Wal-Mart effect," essentially blaming the power of the massive discount retailer for the decline of all brands.
For example, Wal-Mart sells a toaster that retails for $7.84 — a price that an article on Grist points out effectively renders its longevity virtually irrelevant.  If it breaks, just buy another.  
If you are another toaster manufacturer, how can you compete by offering a high quality toaster for $50? No, instead, you lower your own quality dramatically and try to sell competing toasters for $20 or $30.
Consequently, since 1995, the number of toasters and other small electro-thermal appliances sold in the U.S. each year increased from 188 million to 279 million. The average household now buys a new TV every 2.5 years, up from every 3.4 years in the early 1990s. These changes exceed the pace of population growth.
We buy more than 2 billion bath towels a year, up from 1.4 billion in 1994. In general, prices on household goods have fallen by about one-third since the mid-1990s.  Since 1994, the consumer price of apparel as well, in real terms, has fallen by 39 percent.  Quality, like price, is a fraction of what it used to be. 
And as Grist points out, while there are certainly factors beyond Wal-Mart that have contributed to this ever-expanding avalanche of consumption, Wal-Mart has clearly been a major driver of the trend.  Its astounding growth and profitability rest on fueling an ever-faster churn of products, from factory to shelf to house to landfill.
In a paper that was released in 2010, three business professors illustrated how inducing manufacturers to cut product quality enhances Wal-Mart’s competitive position: “Because lower quality products are usually cheaper to produce, it is often argued that discount retailers induce lower quality in order to drive down prices.  Our model suggests, however, that the competitive and bargaining position effects provide incentives to induce lower quality regardless of changes in production costs,” the authors write.
In other words, because of the fierce competition with Wal-Mart, all brands have an incentive to lower their quality and production costs each successive generation, in a perpetual bid to increase profits.  
Brand equity suffers eventually, but only relatively, since other brands' quality will decline, as well.  Many brands seem to have succumbed to this desire to increase profits over the short-term, without any real vision for how to survive the onslaught of customer complaints. Only time will tell which brands will survive this march to mediocrity in a disposable economy.