October 14, 2005
Passion Factor

This post may be evidence that my demented mindscape is expanding in strange and contradictory ways, considering my previous posts deal with pro wrestling and soap opera, but a thought struck me a couple of days ago while I was looking around Boston's Saks Fifth Avenue over at the Prudential Center.

No, it wasn't dismay at all of the goats around the store, tugging on the cashmere scarves of the mannequins, although I do admit it was a bit disorienting, but it was the prices, which were even more disorienting.

I was shopping for my wife's birthday, and I realize that, even if I wanted to channel all my funds into one particularly great gift, the prices were rising to the point it would be impossible. From Manolos to Puccis, the prices seemed to be up across the board.

But I think I gained a little insight while reading this month's Vogue (again, don't ask). The article, by Robert Sullivan, traced the path of a various buyers for trendy stores as they go to Europe to purchase outfits for the upcoming fall season, which has turned out to be one of the most expensive fashion seasons in many years.

One buyer, Jeffrey of Jeffrey's in New York and Atlanta, named not only a diminished "trendiness" of the dollar in Europe but also a rising desire to buy for their customer base fewer items but with higher quality, or, as he put it, a higher "passion factor."

"I had to really look for a passion factor," he explains. "I had to put myself in my customers' stilettos and ask, Would I pay $4,500 for those shoes, $1,800 for that boot? If I felt the passion factor was there, then I bought it."

This argument relates closely to the theory of the Experience Economy espoused by B. Joseph Pine and James Gilmore. Pine and Gilmore examine the need for companies to shift from selling goods to selling experiences in order to keep their product less like a commodity and more like a lifestyle. The clothing labels are understanding this and capitalizing on this more and more, it seems, and buyers are purchasing outfits with the experience in mind.

"I think price is an issue only when it's a basic replacement item, like a gabardine suit," another buyer, Penne Weidig of Tootsies in Texas, said. "If that was $1,500 before and now it's $2,000, there may be some slight rumblings. But if it's something that is fabulous and over-the-top and they have an immediate emotional response, then price is not going to be an issue."

Of course, this is a line of thinking that clothing brands have probably come to realize much sooner than most other companies. But the current patterns will likely continue. As Grant McCracken argues in Culture and Consmption II, pricing is a major way that companies can manage meaning, and a higher price simply means that the product is more valuable in the eyes of the consumer. While this line of thinking apparently won't work for such "commonplace" items as a gaberdine suit (I've always heard that men who wear them are spies), it apparently will work for those products that provide an emotinal response. And the companies that can manage to focus on that experience factor while adjusting pricing to manage their meaning, they will allow that "passion factor" to kick in, a frame of mind where customers will apparently "sell the ranch" to buy their daughters a wedding dress, as Weidig puts it.