Up: The New American Luxury
Although a welcome challenge, reading outside of one’s discipline is not always an easy task, nor is it always a pleasurable one. One does, however, come to expect certain critical motifs from authors writing within or across disciplinary lines that are frequently transgressed (literature, psychology, philosophy, sociology, etc.); a prime example of such a motif is a skeptical approach to capitalism. Not only is Trading Up not anti-capitalist, it offers a new model for succeeding in a stagnating capitalist market. It informs us that “Reports of the death of the American consumer are greatly exaggerated” [p. 279] and challenges its readers with “a call to action” to service an economic populace that desires emotional fulfillment from their higher-priced purchases.
As one trained in literary and cultural studies, I was apprehensive—to say the least—when I began reading Trading Up, and initially resistant. I expected the goals of a text focusing on business administration would be too divergent from my own critical orientation; and I prepared to attack from various angles a book that I expected to be rife with social irresponsibility and opportunistic capitalism. I was only partially right; while Silverstein and Fiske (who are corporate researchers, not academics) do urge their readers to take advantage of the potential profitability of “New Luxury” items what they identify as the American phenomenon of “trading up,” they also offer a reasonably convincing case that this new economic milieu will produce benefits for the consumer and society at large that are at least as positive as those for the producer.
The concept of New Luxury is, the authors admit, problematic in some ways (though I would claim there are many others), and their foreword explains some of the initial impediments that they faced along the way, particularly from industry insiders: “Part of the problem was the word itself: luxury. To some, it sounded trivial. These aren’t essentials, the guns and butter that drive an economy. People don’t need luxury, after all. They need, well, necessities” [p. vii]. New Luxury enters at the point at which, when necessities are filled (or become, at least in the eyes of the consumer, less important than wants), the consumer has excess funds which s/he can use to indulge the self in purchases that are based on emotion rather than physiology, a consumerist progression up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: the surplus of funds remaining after those necessary to nourish the body have been allotted can be used to please the mind or differently—that is, more expensively—fulfill bodily needs. Consumers can purchase products that make them feel better about themselves, that allow them to feel as if they have access to something elite, that feed and fulfill the middle-market consumer in ways that enable feelings of prestige (or, to use Silverstein and Fiske’s neologism, “masstige,” mass-produced products that simulate prestige).
New Luxury products and services can be differentiated from the “Old Luxury” variety in multiple ways. New Luxury items come at a higher price than traditional mid-range products and services, but their price is low enough, so that almost everyone can afford to purchase them at least someof the time: after all, most people with any source of income could manage to fork over the $15 for a Belvedere vodka martini rather than the less expensive Absolut or even cheaper varieties of alcohol (whether or not they should spend so much is a question that isn’t much of a concern here), whereas only a select few American consumers will ever be able to scrape together $300,000 for a Bentley automobile, or even a couple of thousand dollars (or more) for a Gucci outfit and handbag. These items also offer some sort of qualitative improvement over previous versions of similar products: for instance, Victoria's Secret’s development of a premium-but-not-exclusively-priced seamless bra, or the large—and therefore easier and more accurate—club head on Callaway Golf’s Big Bertha driver. They are also not as widely available as more middle-of-the-road products, but more so than truly exclusive products; most anyone can shop at a Trader Joe’s grocery store, but many of the products they offer are not available anywhere else—at least not at such a low cost. They might also offer “artisanal” quality: that is to say, not strictly hand-made (which necessarily involves frequent anomalies and occasional defects in manufacturing) but a feeling that special attention has been paid to the individual product, such as the small brewery ethos of Samuel Adams beverages, or the high-quality craftsmanship of the American Girl brand of dolls and accessories. This is just a small sampling of the qualities that New Luxury items embody, but they serve to demonstrate the unique quality that such products: they have an air of elitism, but many consumers can sometimes manage to “rocket,” or overspend on a certain product in order to fulfill some sort of emotional desire.
Silverstein and Fiske explore four “emotional spaces” that New Luxury products must fill in order to be successful: Taking Care of Me, Connecting, Questing, and Individual Style. Certain products and services allow us to feel pampered and relaxed and provide consumers with a feeling of refreshment: this is Taking Care of Me. Consumption that occurs in social settings or in order to feel like a part of a community exemplifies ways of Connecting. The products that fulfill the Questing need engage an increasingly intelligent and informed market of consumers in ways that provoke adventurousness and stimulate the intellect. Forming an Individual Style involves self-expression, differentiation among peers, and a display of success and sophistication through one’s purchases. These are desires that Silverstein and Fiske believe we all possess, and that for those willing to spend (but not too much), New Luxury items are the perfect remedy for what ails Americans’ psyches.
To say that this quenching of emotional desires with capitalistic consumption is problematic for the cultural critic is to understate the case, yet it is never problematized here: where the critic may see pathology, these authors see opportunity. Can goods and services truly provide emotional fulfillment, or are we just encountering a twenty-first century iteration of Marx’s fetish? And the ethics of a New Luxury system seem awkward, even to the most casual reader. Of the emotional spaces, Silverstein and Fiske note the import of morality and values to their target consumer: “We are not totally selfish beings, and we feel a strong sense of responsibility to other people, our country, and our world environment […] It’s important to New Luxury customers that the goods they buy reinforce their good intentions toward the world” [p. 47]. One of the interviewees surveyed for the book comments: “We acknowledge we like nice things, and we have an incredibly nice lifestyle. We try not to feel guilty about that, but we also try to be conscious of the fact that we’re part of a broader society and community and try to make sure we give to charity and donate money” [p. 47]. While the concern the respondent demonstrates for her community is admirable, other respondents, discussing the social value of shopping at import grocery stories, demonstrate the risks of socially-conscious shopping, in which the buying of products which eradicate guilt from the conscience in lieu of more significant forms of activism. The question then is, is the socially-conscious shopper doing the best that he or she can for the community in buying New Luxury products, since their purchasing is often facilitated in some way so as to increase the ease of the shopping experience of the shopper pressed for time? Maybe people whose long working hours leave them hard-pressed for time find that more engaged forms of activism are impossible, making their practices of consumption the only viable option for conscience cleaning. So while New Luxury consumption can, in some ways, serve as a form of activism, one must ask, is it enough?
The overarching question I must ask of the book then boils down to the following: how can such a practice as trading up, rocketing for goods in the New Luxury, be beneficial to society? Silverstein and Fiske believe the emotional benefits of consumerism are the most obvious societal gains (again, Marxists take note), but they believe that the largest benefits may come in form of communication between producers and consumers. Whereas advancements in technology and aesthetics have traditionally taken significant amounts of time to trickle down from higher-end items to more affordable products, consumers’ willingness to purchase New Luxury items that are within their means has accelerated the process from months, years, or even decades to sometimes just a few weeks. The desirability of the New Luxury items leads to a polarization of the market: people tend to either trade up or trade down rather than purchase moderately priced items; this is why department stores have begun to suffer in the current economy, while New Luxury brands have expanded despite a poor economy. Consumers want to save in certain areas so that they can splurge in others, though they may only be willing to do so when a quality low-end product is available. Silverstein and Fiske believe this “death in the middle” has led to improvement in quality becoming ubiquitous in American industry. So then, the largest benefit for all American consumers is a general increase in the quality of products and services available, which, it seems, is not such a bad thing.
The attitude toward capitalism that this book takes may seem defeatist or complacent; some might say it is realist. All I can say is that it is not repugnant, as I had imagined it would be. Despite the focus on profitability that the book encourages, there is a generally philanthropic tone throughout; the authors really believe that trading up will benefit America in ways not just economic, and I often find them compelling. Their narration of various success stories—particularly the discussions of Victoria’s Secret and The American Girl doll—are intriguing and seem in many ways to describe a company that has the best interest of consumers in mind, not just as spenders of dollars but as holistic human beings. Many sections of the book, particularly the case studies that occupy much of the central portion of the book, are genuine page-turners.
While Trading Up is not without its ideological problems, I found it both interesting and important, as it points to an important phenomenon within American culture that has yet to be fully explored. What now seems necessary is an extended study of the topic by a cultural critic with a Marxist orientation, one who can indict, confirm, or challenge Silverstein and Fiske, who can explain what trading up means rather than what it is. For now, however, this book presents a useful examination of what may be the crucial topic of economic enquiry for the next generation of scholars.