I’m currently reading the book Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell, which is very well researched and a good read so far. One of the major themes of the book is how our culture is losing the ability to discern quality for ourselves. As a result, we use brand names and prices as shortcut indicators of quality.
First, take brand names. In general, we love brand names, because each of them allows a mental shortcut as to what to expect. Mercedez Benz. Rolex. Nike. This is why outlet malls are so popular. Since brands = quality, and outlet = low prices, we get insanely excited. Outlet malls are greater tourist attraction draws than national monuments.
As for prices, how often do you see a huge number on a shirt price tag, but with a slash through it? Retail Price: $80. Your Price: Only $19.99. Even better, make it one-day only like Groupon or Woot.com. The Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) is often purely a marketing scheme to make you feel like you’re getting a deal. This is called the reference price. You may not know anything about fabrics or stitching, but hey, this shirt used to cost $80, so it must be pretty good quality. I’m saving over 75% off the original price, how can I lose?
Coach is given as a great example of a well-recognized brand name that uses these tendencies to its advantage. Starting out in 1941 as a small leather workshop in New York, Coach is a maker of “affordable luxury” leather purses and other accessories complete with trademarked logos. Most manufacturing is now done in China and other cheap-labor countries. In fact, the gross margins across the company are now a huge 70-75%. (Gross margin is the difference between selling price and the cost to produce.)
Traditionally, outlet and factory stores sold slightly damaged or defective examples of their regular products at a steep discount. However, it may surprise you that now many brands make goods designed specifically for their outlet stores. At a Coach Factory Store, 80% of the stuff inside is sold exclusively in those stores. These are lower-quality versions, intended to be sold only at outlets for a lower price. You can’t return outlet purchases at a regular store, because they aren’t the same thing and are subtly marked as such (also because they want to make it harder to return).
Would it surprise you further to know that Coach makes more profit from its factory stores than its full retail stores? Per this article, Coach had 347 retail stores and 129 factory stores in North America. In a way, you could say that the main purpose of the full-price Coach stores in upscale shopping centers is to keep up the facade of quality. Meanwhile, the Coach Factory Outlets provide all the profit. The glitzy stores create that critical reference price ($800 purse!), so you think the Factory Store price is a good one. A $149 Coach? What a deal. If you own Coach bags or know people who do, think about it. How many did you buy at a “real” store vs. a Factory store?
Over time, this practice should dilute Coach’s brand equity. However, if we are indeed unable to judge quality and are just interested in brand names anyway, then it will take a while.