Friday, March 06, 2009

Another shopping post (ducks head)

Presented with the choice between two items of clothing, one $30 down from $80,* another one $30 full-priced, which would you choose? First give your answer, then, if you have a moment, read the discussion below.

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It always seemed to me a given to go with Item A, the discounted one. Why pay the same for the inferior product? Item A might be more durable, might fit better, or (if brands are your thing) might be the label you prefer. (Ground covered on this most intellectual of blogs before.) Or maybe you're not label-conscious for the sake of label-consciousness, but you find the font of the Nautica logo especially appealing. Whatever the reasons, however practical or ridiculous, everybody likes a deal, right?

Wrong. Paul Gowder's suggestion that I opt for "cheap" jeans from Target, rather than non-cheap jeans that are, due to a sale, equivalent in price to those at Target (to be fair, it seems he was picturing $15 jeans, not the $30 ones the Target site revealed, but hear me out), suggests a different approach to the question. By going with the full-priced, also-thirty-dollar Item B, you are still using your brand of choice to tell the world a message about yourself, but the message you are sending is that you won't spend a fortune on your clothes. With Item A, your bank account will be no more affected than with B, but acquaintances will imagine you to be rich (as in, 'What's an Old Navy?'), superficial (as in, 'Ugh, Old Navy!'), or both. Assuming you care what others think, and I've yet to meet a human who does not, a whole discussion will ensue about how the item was on sale. When it would have been simpler to just buy cheap-looking cheap clothes in the first place. Otherwise, you are Marie Antoinette until proven innocent.

But. Sales can be fun! They make you feel clever. The point is not to look well-off or decadent, or else there'd be no 'Oh, it was on sale' routine, but a silent smirk meant to imply, 'Why yes, this is from a boutique in Southampton.' Furthermore, sales allow you (and by you I mean me) to commune with shmatte-selling ancestors. Sure, stores take the sale concept too far - ever been to a store with a 'sale bin' filled with $100 tank tops, as though their location in a bin and labels claiming they once cost $1,000 a pop make them inexpensive? or a store with a permanent "60% off" sign in the window, with no evidence that anything was ever the alleged full price? - but often you can find a more attractive item thanks to a drop in price.

Mentioning that an item came from a sale is not necessarily just about defensiveness, but about a sisterhood of bargains - maybe your colleague really did like that handbag, and was not making a snide allusion to her perception of your spending habits, and will now go buy one for herself, now that she knows which sample sale it came from. Without relaunching the Great Feminism and Superficiality Debate of January, 2009, allow me to ask: is that so wrong?


*If you find it unthinkable that someone would spend $30 on an item of clothing, either because that's so much or because it's so little, adjust the scale accordingly.

10 comments:

Paul Gowder said...

I was, after all, picturing $15 jeans! An important fact... and I would always support the purchase of $30 jeans for $15, or even $80 jeans for 15, though $200 jeans for $15 might be pushing it a bit, because, you know, they're probably stolen. Do people jack jeans? Oh, who am I kidding. Of course they do.

Phoebe said...

Yes, you were, which I point out. Although you might have known that, although your Target jeans went for $15, that's particularly low for that store, or perhaps just not in line with what women's jeans there go for. At any rate, pretending that $30 is a frou-frou designery amount to spend on jeans is just that - pretending - because that *is* what jeans cost at stores typically recognized as inexpensive (Target and Old Navy, etc.)

You say you'd support "$80 jeans for $15", presumably over $80 jeans for $80, but would you support that over $15 jeans for $15? Even if it meant risking going in public with a name brand, risking people thinking you were one of those people who spend a lot on jeans?

"$200 jeans for $15 might be pushing it a bit, because, you know, they're probably stolen"

One does see reductions like this all the time at Century 21, and I believe it's the result of overstock, not theft, but what do I know.

Miss Self-Important said...

Since most people who see you in your clothes don't have the time or energy to determine their provenance, it's better to get the jeans that most flatter your ass/hips, which, having bought many pairs of Target jeans in my thriftier days, I can assure you is the discounted from $80 pair.

Anonymous said...

Marie Antoinette was taxing the people to buy her clothes.

I have a hard time following the argument for cheap clothing. What's wrong with being stylish within financial constraints? If target jeans were as nice as JCrew I'd go there, but they don't, so I don't.

To go down the sanctimonious liberal road for the moment, don't cheap clothes often indicate worse conditions and wages for those who manufacture the items?

Phoebe said...

MSI:

"Since most people who see you in your clothes don't have the time or energy to determine their provenance"

That's something that varies widely on individual and subcultural bases. There are those who will not be your friend if your jeans aren't the new it brand, and those who won't talk to you if your jeans *are* the new it brand, along with a lot of sane folks who nevertheless do take these things somewhat into account. But you're right that the main determination is and should be flattering versus ill-fitting.

Anonymous:

"I have a hard time following the argument for cheap clothing. What's wrong with being stylish within financial constraints?"

The idea is not necessarily that stylishness is bad (although it's sometimes that), but rather that only a fool would see a difference between expensive and cheap versions of, say, jeans. So, since no one respectable wants to be thought the kind of person who would pay $200 for jeans, what's the point of $200 jeans on sale? Of course, as MSI points out, the fit often gets better as the price goes up.

"To go down the sanctimonious liberal road for the moment, don't cheap clothes often indicate worse conditions and wages for those who manufacture the items?"

I'm guessing there wouldn't be much of a difference between the production conditions of jeans from a higher-end chain (i.e. J.Crew) and from a lower-end one (i.e. Target).

PG said...

"$200 jeans for $15 might be pushing it a bit, because, you know, they're probably stolen"

One does see reductions like this all the time at Century 21, and I believe it's the result of overstock, not theft, but what do I know.


There's also extremes in sizing that lead to sales -- I frequently see nice clothes heavily discounted by retailers who are just trying to get rid of the 0s and 16s. This has been especially true in recent months, as excess inventory is a sign that a corporation isn't being aggressive enough in this recession, and it is punished accordingly in the stock market. (Cf. Saks's alleged over-aggression leading to the threat of its being punished by manufacturers.)

I'm a fairly standard size, but even I've recently bought dresses discounted from $170 to $40 (a percentage reduction almost equal to $80 dropped to $15) because the manufacturer wanted to get rid of certain colors.

Matt said...

Is anyone who isn't a complete moron "label conscious" as such? I mean, not because they've had good success with a brand, or the brand is a reasonable proxy for quality in a world where you don't want to spend time doing research, or something like that, but because they want to flash the brand or label? I know that there are such people, and that marketers depend on them, but isn't that basically a sign of being an idiot? There are sometimes good reasons to use brands as a proxy, as noted, for quality, and there might even be other reasons for favoring a label ("the idiots I work with all think you can really trust a guy in a Brooks Brothers suit, so I'd better get one" or something), but man, "brand conscious" must really be a way to say "fool" in marketing speak. Beyond that, though, if you can get quality for lower costs, do it, of course. Intentionally getting less good things if you don't need to is also dumb.

Phoebe said...

PG,

Agreed re: sizing. I've benefited at clothing sales from being minute (not to mention the double-discount joys of children's clothes going on sale!), but with shoes it's hopeless--turns out every woman's a size 8.

Matt,

Yes, a person who outright says, "look at my Prada bag, see how it's from Prada?" is, in all likelihood, an idiot. But typically, the one-brand-over-the-other choice involves a certain degree of subliminal/unconscious decision-making. I don't think you can so neatly divide the world into the intelligent, who don't fall for marketing, and the fools, who do. Most people are probably somewhere on the spectrum.

PG said...

Matt,

There's also the further complication of what brands one picks to avoid getting certain other brands. I humbly admit to preferring stuff that is well-known in the UK but hasn't yet made it into an American rap lyrics, in part because the British appear to have a slightly more quality-based assessment of what makes something good instead of being addicted to the fashion of the month. (Burberry for men's clothes, for example, really does seem to be solid -- and stolid.) Weirdly enough, I also trust my mother's taste in brands because she is a committed bargain hunter and desperately misses being able to haggle*, but she also has money and will spend it on good quality stuff. Is this the distinction between thrifty and cheap?

* I remember when my grandmother came to live with us and started doing some shopping on her own, and our explaining that in the U.S. there is no haggling at the grocery store, not ever, really really.

Phoebe said...

"the British appear to have a slightly more quality-based assessment of what makes something good instead of being addicted to the fashion of the month."

I don't know much about Britain in particular, but I have a theory about the importance of quality in European versus American clothing. It's that it's not so much that European stuff is of higher quality as that any given item is more expensive relative to discretionary income (whether this stems from a tradition of distrusting bargain-shopping - perhaps associating it with The Jews - or from having to pay so many taxes to the state, or from something else entirely, who knows), leading people to buy less and (thus) treat what they do buy with more care, not letting it all fall into an American-style heap on the couch. At any rate, I have not found random items purchased in Europe to hold up any better than equivalent items purchased in the US.