Friday, October 12, 2012

The Un-Luxuriousness of Luxury

In Economy 101 we learn that products can be sorted in to three different categories. Generally, when you make more money, you buy less of inferior goods (usually low quality products) and more of normal goods (which is why they are called “normal”). But those are absolute terms. There’s a third category called luxury goods. Luxury goods are the ones that make you change the percentage of funds you allocate to a particular type of product.
If you’re making $25,000 a year, you probably don’t need to own a Jaeger-leCoultre watch since a normal $10 will be just as good at telling you the time.  But if your annual bonus is $25,000 you have to own at least one luxury watch. So from spending 0% on luxury you allocate a certain percentage of your salary to luxury.
This is why the main driver in the luxury industry is related to general economic growth. At least that’s what we learned in Economy 101. If we follow that reasoning the luxury business should be in a sad state these days. The world economy is still punch drunk after being down twice, and it’s not sure if it wants to get up again or lay down a third time to let Europe join the party.

But in spite of these circumstances most luxury brands are actually massively outperforming the general market. Companies like PPR (Gucci, Brioni, Bottega Veneta et. al.), Richemont (Cartier, Dunhil & IWC) and LVMH (Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Berluti, Bulgari, TAG Heuer et. al.) have all produced double digit growth in 2012.
Does that mean that economic theory is wrong and that we have to re-write the economy books? Well, yes and no. Economic theory accurately describes the historical trends it is built upon, but it comes to terms when being forced upon events of the past fifty years.

Although income disparity has grown during the last century –the rich getting richer and the poor remaining poor- the general utility score of the average individual has risen. The utility score describes the possibilities an individual has. A hundred years ago only the rich were able to stay updated on current affairs (buying a newspaper), enjoy music (going to a concert) or be entertained by going to the theatre. Today, internet access will let you access all the news, music, movies and entertainment you want. For free.
This significantly alters the distribution of funds in the household budget. With all the entertainment you want available for the price of a decent web connection it frees up funds to buy stuff that you might not need, but that you want. Like luxury products. This is why the general economy might be worse than 5 years ago but the luxury business is bigger than ever before. Luxury items have not become cheaper but they have become more attainable by the general public. This makes luxury products more democratic, less exquisite, and as a result, a little less luxurious.

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