Friday, January 19, 2018

Of luxury, architecture, aspirational shopping and retail therapy

Artwork by Tarek Chemaly based on Monopoly Imagery Board
The scene happens at a luxury store in Lebanon several years back. A person with a brown skin (without stereotyping I was assuming he was Pakistani) enters the shop as I was browsing merchandise. He rummages through the rows picks items, tries them on in the changing room as I try to act casual but still have an eye on him. Eventually he picks a piece, goes to the cashier and pays in cash. I made it a point to follow him outside the mall - he hailed a cab and said "Naba'a". For those of you not in the know, Naba'a is a low income neighborhood in Beirut.
Clearly the man was an aspirational consumer like many of us are in the luxury world. A friend of mine, loaded in cash, regularly uses his business trips to Europe or the US to get discounted items from there for his wife and children. Studies have proven than even the wealthy are not immune to a good deal.
The reason why most luxury brands have a perfume and cosmetics division is quite literally for aspirational reasons. Customers who cannot afford the mainline can still get into the universe of a brand by buying a perfume or - as in the case of the Chanel Vamp, a nail polish that became so extremely popular shops could not order it fast enough. And yes, this also means, occasionally, buying into the mainline of a luxury brand - we save for it, keep checking the shops regularly to see if it is still available in our size, wait for the sales, sometimes even the super sales, and eventually get it - or perhaps wait for a day where everything goes wrong an we want to compensate with "retail therapy" (which is exactly what it says - curing bad mood with spending money) and end up paying for it (most likely not as full-sticker price and as the saying goes "buy in haste repent at leisure").
But trust me, all this marketing lesson has a reason - we are all aspirational consumers. Which is why I am wondering if a luxury retailer in Lebanon is starting to lose those consumers with his architectural strategy. I periodically go to malls, supermarkets, department stores, luxury shops and strike casual discussions with salespeople who automatically warm up to my innocent face. And in the case of that specific retailer, the consensus was clear - the gist of it is this: "when we moved to our new location, sales have dropped". There could be many reasons for that, but the chief of which is this - the new location in question is intimidating for Mr. and Mrs. Average Joe. The older location, much smaller, more accessible, street-browsable made it easy for someone not extremely wealthy to go into the store anyway and perhaps, treat themselves to something they would not buy under normal circumstances.
I visited the location several times: the eerie silence that engulfs the new place, the gigantic space used, the huge hallways where luxury brand logos are displayed, all of them conspire to an environment which is not emotionally reassuring. The several floors of merchandise saw no one but me in them for more than one time - maybe it is a research bias, I entered at the wrong time, and perhaps luxury shoppers have the superpower of vanishing, but the result is the same, there was no one around but me in the several times I visited.
Naturally I am not naive enough to assume that people are not buying from that luxury store, but considering how many aspirational shoppers there are, there is an obvious disconnect in the architecture, location and what marketing has proven all along. 
Do not be mistaken, marketing studies have proved that the wealthy are not what keep luxury brands thriving because on the whole their percentage is not large enough to sustain it, and as argued earlier, many of us wish to enter the universe of these brands under different guises - be it perfume or cosmetics or even dipping the toe in mainline purchases either for specific occasions or as an act of my-day-was-so-bad-I-am-going-to-treat-myself-to-this-expensive-item.
In case you wish to know how retail therapy works, think of it as this: since you are unable to control any aspect of your life, the only control your have is over your purchasing power and your money, which is why - briefly - retail therapy is an ego booster and an affirmation of the self.
Being a sample of such consumers, I shall not buy from the said shop, because when I enter there, I feel the same way when I visited New York - everything is gigantic in proportion, nothing is fitting to human-scale (and I for one, am short and skinny, therefore below standard in size).
All of this is so intimidating to me, so I guess I shall take my aspirational consumption elsewhere.