A thing about luxury products

by Francois Joseph de Kermadec

Next time you're in Paris, go to the Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré, the luxury fashion center of the city. There, you'll find jewelers, haute couture shops, antique dealers, and just about any high end clothing brand you can dream of. It doesn't have the shiny look of a Vegas mall but, on this very street, you'll find some of the most luxurious stuff on earth. Some of the most expensive as well. (And you'll also find 5€ croque monsieurs but that's what makes Paris fun.)

Now, most of these products are fragile. Take a Versace T-Shirt, that can easily cost in the hundreds of euros, if not a lot more depending on what's on it, and boil it in your washing machine with a dash of Downy: there won't be anything left to wear once the cycle is finished. The Walgreens equivalent however, sold for a mere $2.50 would have held up perfectly. Or take a Hermes cashmere wool coat, a couple blocks away: if not worn carefully and folded (never hung!) at the end of every day, it won't retain its shape more than a week. The JCPenney equivalent however, would, without doubt, do.

Why? After all, Versace's and Hermes' products being more expensive, they should be more resistant, right? Well, they aren't. They may be better cut, made out of more expensive materials, more attractive, they may hug your hips in a way that no other garment can but they will be fragile. A luxury product is often (luckily not always) a product that requires special, sometimes maniacal care.

Now, do Versace or Hermes customers go and sue the companies because they couldn't boil their clothes? No, because it is understood that these products should be handled properly. It is understood that you pay for style, originality, quality of materials, but not for robustness. Yet, these products are extremely expensive and I think most people would agree they are worth what they cost. (Whether you or I, as persons, would be willing to put that amount of money in a product is another matter.)

How come in the computing world we then want everything that is expensive to be solid? Whenever I hear people complain about their iPod nano being covered in fingerprints, the sentence ends in "for a $200 device". Why on earth should the price of the iPod nano make it more resistant to finger marks? Of course, users who say "I believe this is a design issue because the iPod is clearly represented as being held by hands in the launch commercial, without showing marks, and this is misleading" may have a point. Users who say that the iPod nano is "represented as a device fitting in an active lifestyle and, therefore, as a device capable of withstanding daily wear and tear" may as well. But users complaining of fingerprints "because it costs a lot of money" are missing the point — a process we would describe in French as "jumping from the rooster to the donkey".

I don't own an iPod nano, have never seen one in real life (I know, I know!) and, therefore, cannot comment on it. I am merely commenting on the complaints I hear. There might be issues with a product, its robustness may be misrepresented but the price of something does not indicate its robustness. And robustness and quality are two very different concepts.

Actually, the price of a product is merely a measure of its scarcity and the scarcity of what it is made of. Price is not a measure of a product's quality, robustness or reliability. There is a lot of expensive crap out there, just as there are plenty of inexpensive great products. A company does not owe its customers anything because it made them pay something, provided they did not misrepresent what they were selling and complied with laws governing hidden defects and warranties.

The quality of something depends on how you look at it: a Hermes coat is of great quality because its wool will retain its color and shape for years if treated with care, because the sleeves are just the right length, because the zipper is stiched securely… If you are after a robust coat, then, the relative quality of Hermes' contraption will suck and you'll be much better off with a Barbour rain jacket — another great "quality" product in its own right.

Now, we, as people, may feel cheated, may feel like we placed too high a hope in a product and regret it deeply. We may discover, down the line, that we equated price with a specific characteristic that we do not find in a product: this happens daily — and, between us, I have boiled enough T-Shirts to know. But it is a whole other issue altogether.


2005-09-28 06:56:06
François, I think this is a psychology thing.
What they really say is "For this awful lot of money (be it 200 $ or original trained Emirate-high-speed camels or whatsoever) it has to do what I want and to avoid the weaknesses that embarrass ME".
Now, what ME wants that thing to be able to do or to avoid in terms of weak spots, varies greatly depending on who ME is.....
2005-09-28 08:51:01

First of all, thank you very much for taking the time to post, I really do appreciate it!

It is true that we all tend to project different expectations on the products we purchase and, in many cases, expect them to compensate for shortcomings or weaknesses that are, inherently ours and that, therefore, cannot be alleviated by any purchase.


2005-09-28 12:12:12
Not a fair analogy
The reasons for buying any particular good are up to the customer, and a vendor is simply in business to meet those needs.

I would never buy 'luxury' clothes because I'm more about function than style. An iPod Nano, however, is easy to carry, could go with me to the gym, and can store all my iTunes music (with room to spare). An iPod shuffle couldn't, and a full-fledged iPod is bulky. It's a little more expensive than other devices, but also easier to use and from what I hear has excellent audio quality. If I chose one, it would most certainly be for practical reasons, and I would assume that I could get a couple years of life out of it at least, because of previous experience and because Apple doesn't tell me otherwise. I would be very frustrated if within a couple months the screen got so scratched up I could hardly see it.

So, why shouldn't practical usage be a consideration when designing the Nano? How is a $200 music player really like a $1,000+ suit/dress? iPod Nano isn't just a status symbol. it's also a high quality, functional music player, and it should IMHO meet the needs of customers who want something high quality, durable, and reliable.

2005-09-28 13:36:32
Not a fair analogy

First of all, thanks for sharing your ideas with us!

You are right in pointing out that a vendor's reason to exist is to answer the needs of certain consumers. However, at the same time, it is the customer's right to choose with which vendor he will conduct some business and, in that, the vender does not "owe" anything to the purchaser, provided that he does not misrepresent what he sells and respects the law.

In that light, if we take a product such as the nano, we as customers do not have anything to "demand" from it: it is simply offered for us to take or not. In that, I would have to say that practical usage does not necessarily need to be a consideration when designing a product such as the iPod.

Obviously, in fact, a company would not put a product on the market that is unusable because no customers would find it answers their needs and the nano is no exception. It even turns out that the iPod has, so far, set the gold standard for usability. In the abstract, however, demanding that a product be "usable" according to our definition of usability is already projecting our personal expectations on it. Any critics related to usability should therefore be put in the perspective of our personal beliefs.


2005-09-28 15:54:11
Not a fair analogy
"However, at the same time, it is the customer's right to choose with which vendor he will conduct some business and, in that, the vender does not "owe" anything to the purchaser, provided that he does not misrepresent what he sells and respects the law."

Yes, but in a way, Apple has misrepresented what they are selling in this case. Their products usually focus on quality, usability and style, and this is precisely what they advertise on their web site and commercials. They advertise themselves as best of breed and use that to justify the fact that their prices are in the mid to high range. But an easily scratched up screen provides decreases both style and usability (considering that readability decreases), and therefore negates two of the major reasons why the customer was willing to pay the higher price in the first place.

If a company changes its focus or strategy, I think it has an obligation to make its (potential) customers aware of that fact. Don't advertise usability and style, charge extra for them, and then not provide a product which doesn't meet or excel in those criteria. So while I agree with your point in general, I think Apple has a reputation and a brand image which they use to sell their products, and in this case, they failed to live up to that reputation and brand image, and thus sold products on false pretenses.

All that being said, I'm a big fan of Apple in general (I'm writing this from one), I think this just somehow got through their quality control, and I honestly think they will fix the issue. But I think it's fair to call on them to either lower their prices or change their advertising if they don't want to live up to the standards they set for themselves.

2005-09-28 16:14:00
croque monsieurs
Mmmmmmmmmmm, croque monsieurs.

Oh, and I agree with you. I think the whole scratched Ipod Nano lament that is going on right now has more to do with false expectations than construction.

2005-09-29 00:36:49
croque monsieurs
For the truly Parisian touch, don't forget the side salad and tall glass of mineral water ;^)
2005-09-29 00:45:03
Not a fair analogy
Hi again!

As I said earlier, I don't own or have ever seen an iPod nano and, hence, cannot comment on the product itself.

This being said, you rightly point out that your disappointment is linked to the perception you (or the public at large) has of the Apple brand and, therefore, of their products. This, in itself is a very valid point and it is up to every brand and company to ensure that they do not voluntarily or involuntarily misrepresent the products they sell.

My original point was about the relationship between the factor of price and the supposed notions of "quality" or "robustness", that are inherently subjective. Between these three points, there is no link - and there cannot be as they belong to different spheres. Between "marketing" and "quality" / "robustness" however, there without doubt is, as the very job of marketing is to set the expectations of consumers.

Again, I cannot comment on the nano itself and I cannot say whether or not Apple has misrepresented anything. We do however seem to agree on the role marketing plays with regard to the consumer's expectations.


2006-02-17 20:12:20
It's virtually impossible to believe that it's almost a decade since the murder of the "aristocratic" and visionary fashion designer Gianni Versace. The superstar Italian fashion designer was murder in Miami, Florida, on 15th July 1997 by fugitive Andrew Cunanan, an alleged homophobic who was responsible for the murder of four other men before taking the life of Gianni Versace. Eight days later, Andrew Cunanan committed suicide in a houseboat on Miami Beach that was under siege by armed police.

Gianni Versace is without doubt one of the most respected, if not the most respected, fashion designers of his generation. Born in Reggio, Calabria, Italy on 2nd December 1946, he went onto build a fashion empire worth $807 million. A designer to the stars, Gianni Versace's outrageous propensity for chic glamour attracted names such as Elton John, George Michael, Madonna, Courtney Love, Jon Bon Jovi, the Artist (formerly known as Prince), Tina Turner, Sylvester Stallone, Will Smith, Elizabeth Hurley (who famously wore his safety pin dress to the Oscars) and, most notably, Princess Diana. The Gianni Versace style was, like all true style, indefinable; a mad mixture of avant garde and ostentatious extremes -- the man was a fashion genius and a great loss to his industry.

Donatella Versace, Gianni's younger sister, had the unenviable task of taking over the reigns of Versace and undoubtedly many people were anticipating the demise of the brand without its founder to lead the way. Donatella, it was said, could never live up to the immense reputation of her legendary brother. Well, it's been virtually ten years since the untimely passing of Gianni Versace and the Versace Brand is still a major force to be reckoned with and much of that success is due directly to Donatella's vision and incredible design sense. Donatella has surpassed all expectations and not only stabilized the Versace Brand but taken it on to new heights that would surely make her brother proud.

Donatella Versace has proven herself to be an incredible fashion designer in her own right and deserves to be afforded as much respect and adulation as her greatly missed brother!