Burgher Deluxe

The benefits of conspicuous consumption are conspicuously overlooked

Can the future of our planet be glimpsed in a line of overweight midwestern tourists in Nike caps in Las Vegas, gawking at a Harley-Davidson Café next to a fake Eiffel Tower next to a fake Egyptian pyramid, while all around Disneyesque jets of water sway to the croonings of Celine Dion? If you think the answer is yes, and this Oktoberfest of consumerism depresses you ... look in the mirror! Do you see a New York Times subscription? Do you see Italian loafers? Do you see a bottle of $18 Chardonnay (or, more darkly, some trampy varietal you hate to admit is Australian, and six bucks)? Just having the luxury of time to sadly ponder the collapse of civilization suggests you're a member of a demographic PRIZM (Potential Rating Index for Zip Markets) cluster such as "Money and Brains" or "Furs and Station Wagons" (more likely to consume natural cold cereal, pumpernickel bread, the BMW 5-series), as much defined by your purchases as, say, "Old-Old," "Levittown U.S.A.," or "Shotguns and Pickups" (this last more likely to consume chain saws, snuff, frozen potato products, whipped toppings).

Never mind how exquisitely discerning we think we are. In twenty-first-century America our stories have become one and the same: we work to consume, we live to consume, we are what we consume. And not just that; according to a recent spate of appalling—yet intriguing—new books in what one reviewer has called "the growing field of luxe lit," it seems we're all starting to consume the same things. The melting pot is becoming a fondue, as increasing numbers of Americans hurl their hard-earned dollars at such unnecessaries as lattes, gourmet chocolate, Napa wine, massage, lingerie, designer wear, and Mercedes coupes. No longer just for super-rich blue bloods, the "luxury" experience has become thoroughly middle-class, even prole (two words: "Gucci T-shirt"). But is this good news or bad news?

In the view of Michael J. Silverstein and Neil Fiske, the authors of the depressingly hilarious and hilariously depressing Trading Up, it is good news. Particularly if you're the CEO of Bath & Body Works, which Fiske is, or the head of Victoria's Secret ("a $3.5 billion multichannel brand"), as is the book's preface writer. Also apparently not hurting, according to this euphoric business text, are the makers of such meteoric "New Luxury" hits as Sub-Zero refrigerators, Viking ranges, Kendall-Jackson wines, Belvedere vodka, Sam Adams lager, and Callaway golf clubs—and, since we're making lists, Starbucks, BMW, Williams-Sonoma, Panera Bread, Coach, and the Cheesecake Factory, all specialty businesses that actually, incredibly, grew during the 2001-2002 downturn.

The question for entrepreneurs—at whom this book, with its admirable sangfroid, is aimed—is: Why do some New Luxury products explode, while others belly-flop harder than a plunging Cadillac Cimarron? The answer: emotional engagement. It's not enough to trick out what's basically a Chevy, as Old Luxury dinosaur Cadillac infamously did with the Cimarron, and hope that folks will buy it for sentimental and/or vaguely musty status reasons. According to the authors, New Luxury consumers seek actual technical superiority, or at least a perception of such, and fulfillment in four specific "emotional spaces": "Taking Care of Me," "Connecting," "Questing," and "Individual Style." Example:

BMW owners wash their cars more frequently than owners of other cars do. They park them on the street and then turn back to gaze lovingly at them as they walk away. They say that the first sight of their BMW in the airport parking lot is like a warm welcome home.

The stinging comparison: "It's a rare Taurus driver who can be found gazing fondly at his parked car."

And how is all this vigorous trading up from Taurus to BMW possible? Happily for New Luxury marketers, Americans are working more hours than ever, have more disposable income, and have less time to spend it in; and the family has collapsed. (Startling statistic, delivered without comment: "In 1996, the lifetime probability of being divorced for a twenty-five-year-old was 52 percent.") Hence typical New Luxury consumers are "lonely, fearful, stressed, and longing for peace, but they are also hopeful, optimistic, and eager to try new things." As The Wall Street Journal, quoted by Silverstein and Fiske, suggested, they are today's frozen-faced Willy Lomans: "growing numbers of salesmen and lawyers, bankers and stockbrokers are fixing their facial expressions with Botox." They are our Eukanuba-hoarding singletons: in many of America's 35 million non-family households "pets have become the new children," in that 83 percent of pet owners call themselves "Mommy" or "Daddy" when talking to their pets (up from 55 percent in 1995), and almost two thirds celebrate their pets' birthdays. They are angry divorcées sullenly questing at the Cheesecake Factory. They account for the astonishing sales of Viking ranges, 75 percent of which are never used.

Presented by

Sandra Tsing Loh is a writer and performer whose solo show Sugar Plum Fairy will be running at the Geffen Playhouse, in Los Angeles, in November and December. Her most recent book is A Year in Van Nuys (2001).

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