Thursday, August 21, 2014

Because You're Worth It: Masstige and Bargain Beauty

The price may be right, but what else drives your beauty buys?

I’ve been thinking about high-end beauty products as inconspicuous consumption, and what that means for displays of wealth among women. In doing so, I ignored the other end of the scale: bargain beauty products. The idea I was exploring a couple of weeks ago was that high-end beauty products signaled an investment in beauty, as opposed to a temporary gussying-up; think top-notch dermatology and expensive retinol creams, the benefits of which only really show up after long-term use (and therefore hundreds—or thousands—of dollars in). But it’s not like buying bargain beauty products means that you don’t regard beauty as an investment. Most obviously, it could be that your budget is limited (which, given the price of even the most basic quality anti-aging cream, is probably the case for most of us).

More interesting to talk about, though, is the idea of bargain beauty as a different sort of investment. Consumer research repeatedly shows that bargain shopping—in this case, drugstore or 99-cent-store beauty products instead of Sephora or department stores—actually brings a similar sense of reward as luxury shopping. 

Perceived value is one of the highest predictors of consumer satisfaction. Think, for example, of a time you’ve paid full price for something only to see it go on sale the next day. Even if you were satisfied at the time of purchase, you might well become retroactively dissatisfied because you felt like you got ripped off. In other words, your perceived value of the item dropped. (It’s actually so harmful to consumer satisfaction that some chain stores will refund customers the difference of a full-price item if it goes on sale within a certain time window of the initial purchase.) When you’re buying a $90 jar of skin cream, it means that you feel that the value of the cream is worth the price tag—maybe it’s actually no better than the $12 cream at the drugstore, but you believe it is, which, in essence, makes it “worth it.” But a similar logic applies to the $12 cream: If you believe it does what you want it to do, the perceived value of the item may be more than the twelve bucks you shelled out for it. You might even take pleasure in believing that you’re able to see through (what you perceive as) gimmickry of high-end products. It’s seemingly the inverse of the pleasure another woman might take in opening up a Chanel compact, seeing those interlocking Cs, and feeling as though she’s made an investment in herself. In truth, though, it’s the same thing: It temporarily heightens the way you feel about yourself.

[Tangent that has little to do with beauty but everything to do with women: This heightened self-concept is theorized to be behind what drives bargain shoppers, specifically the “coupon queens” along the lines of the people in the TV show Extreme Couponing. At least one consumer researcher links the sense of competence one can derive from bargain shopping to feeling a lack of competence in more traditional ways, like the workplace. Hence “coupon moms”: Full-time homemakers don’t get annual reviews (at least, I hope not), but if you can point to the savings you’ve made by clipping coupons, I imagine that would bring a direct, empirical sense of competence that’s somewhat different from the other forms of competence homemakers display. My mother’s couponing drove me nuts as a teenager, but I get it now, and not only because I recognize it as a branch of home economics. Anyway.]

In fact, the temporary self-esteem boost one gets from bargain shopping becomes exaggerated when the shopper is able to attribute the bargain to her own skills—for example, proffering a coupon, or bargaining for a lower price, as opposed to simply purchasing a low-cost item. Another way a shopper might attribute a bargain to her own skills is recognizing a good deal when she sees it. Enter “masstige” products, i.e. products meant to be seen as prestige products that are sold at price points affordable to the masses. For New Yorkers, masstige is most evident in the aisles of Duane Reade drugstores, which in the past few years has revamped its beauty section to look more like something you’d see at Sak’s Fifth Avenue—softer lighting, island displays, skin care consultants. Along with that comes products that are more expensive than usual drugstore fare but still less than what you’d pay were you actually at Sak’s. (I’m a fan of a retinol cream I buy at Duane Reade that features sleek packaging and sounds all fancy but is just a brand of L’Oréal. A brand that costs three times as much as products labeled “L’Oréal,” mais oui.)

Indeed, masstige beauty is growing, with CVS entering the market, and with other major drugstore chains already in it. It’s gotten to the point where premium beauty brands are seeing masstige as a threat that supposedly confuses consumers into thinking they’re getting a higher-quality product than they actually are. Which brings us back to square one: The more that high-end beauty brands try to set themselves apart by seeming exclusive and catering to a consumer who sees purchasing that brand as evidence of her good taste, the more that reinforces the appeal of masstige products to a somewhat different consumer, who sees purchasing a masstige brand as evidence of her good sense. The masstige consumer might look at the prestige buyer and think, What a fool; the prestige buyer might look at the masstige buyer and think, Poor thing, or simply assume that the masstige route is a financial choice, ignoring or oblivious to its nonfinancial rewards.

It’s gotten me thinking about what drives my own beauty purchases. My bathroom cabinet has everything from $2 Wet ‘n’ Wild eyeliner to masstige products like my retinol cream to items on the lower end of the prestige market. (I try not to pimp out brands here but honestly, Smashbox’s BB cream is friggin’ fantastic, and who am I to keep it secret?) And sure enough, I receive a different sense of satisfaction when I buy items at different points on the spectrum: I feel savvy when I buy a cheap product that does what I want it to do; I feel like I’m making an investment in self-care when I shell out for my retinol; I feel like a clever beauty researcher when I buy my BB cream, knowing that I’ve tried less expensive brands and that the high-ish price actually buys quality in this case. What nonfinancial rewards are most likely to drive your own beauty purchases? Feeling like you’re getting a deal for less than someone else might pay for a similar result? Feeling like you’re making an investment in your appearance? Feeling like you’re treating yourself? Or do you skip most products altogether because none of those rewards are appealing to you?

Friday, August 1, 2014

Beauty and (In)conspicuous Consumption

It wasn't just her last name that marked Gloria Vanderbilt as one of those Vanderbilts.

I've been enjoying participating in this month's structured conversation on visual persuasion and the state at Cato Unbound. Virginia Postrel (whom regular readers will recall authored the excellent The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion, which I reviewed here) wrote the lead essay, in which she argues for the use of glamour, iconography, and visual appeals in politics; Grant McCracken, Martin Gurri, and I were invited to write responses from there. Much of the discussion is relevant to readers here, particularly McCracken's musings on sprezzatura and Postrel's thoughts on the true danger of glamour—and, hopefully, my own thoughts on what the faces of our politicians say about the nature of beauty, the glamour of the therapeutic narrative, and why we appreciate glamour in politics but eschew luxury.

This last essay brought up inconspicuous consumption—an inversion of Thorstein Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption that shows how the truly wealthy will invest in less-visible goods (such as travel and education) and that it's actually people with less net worth who spend more on visible goods like expensive cars, jewelry, and clothing. It made me wonder about the money people spend on beauty, and whether beauty goods are examples of inconspicuous consumption, or examples of the opposite. After all, our faces and bodies are the most visible things we own—but most run-of-the-mill beauty products are meant to be inconspicuous, and few advertise themselves as markers of wealth once on the wearer. Sure, a Chanel lipstick says its owner is able to spend $35 on a tube of wax, but freshly applied it's not going to look much different than the $7 tube from the drugstore.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder whether beauty work is coded similarly to other forms of inconspicuous consumption. Education is a prime example of inconspicuous consumption—higher education costs money, and while financial aid makes it possible for plenty of bright, poor high school seniors to go to Ivy League schools, you're also unlikely to run across a whole lot of Rockefellers at the local community college. And going to the sort of schools where you do find Rockefellers gives you a level of cultural capital you're going to have a harder time finding in other ways—you pick up on certain language patterns, cultural references, experiences, and fashions that mark you as having access to a certain social class, regardless of what your paycheck says. Prestigious education is a long-term investment, in other words, and we understand such forms of investment as being correlated with wealth, even more so than we correlate it with being merely rich. (As Chris Rock puts it on wealthy vs. rich: "Here's the difference: Shaq is rich. The white man who signs his checks is wealthy.")

I don't want to lapse into stereotypes about Upper East Side housewives with their plastic surgery and expensive hairdos. But the fact is, there is a marked difference in the faces of women walking down East 86th Street in Manhattan and 86th Street in Queens, you know? Wealth enables you not to buy expensive foundation, but to buy the kind of skin creams, personalized skin care and access to the world's best dermatologists, and long-term know-how that enables a wealthy older woman to have the sort of look that marks her as a wealthy older woman. That is: Wealth enables you to treat beauty as a long-term investment. You see something similar with hair care—maintaining the kind of cut and color that you see among the wealthy takes time and money, both of which are in shorter supply among working-class folks. A working-class woman might well have a fantastic haircut and do a nice job with hair color from a box, but keeping it up week after week is going to be a lot harder for her than it is for her wealthier counterpart.

Any reader of ladymags has seen enough of those "$10 face vs. $100 face: Can you tell the difference?" features to know that it's easy enough to replicate the look of pricey makeup. But makeup isn't an investment in a person's looks; it's short-term, washed off at the end of the day. Skin care, body care, hair care—just the repetition of the word care here shows that these forms of beauty work require something more than just slapping down some money at the Clé de Peau counter. (I mean, that terminology is deliberate, framing beauty work as "care" instead of as, well, work, but go with me here.) The word care reflects the investment factor—and sure enough, it's those forms of investment that mark the most visible differences between your average rich lady and your average not-rich one.

But that's just it: These beauty investments are visible; they're just not obvious. (And, of course, there are plenty of older women who never use an expensive skin cream in their life and have gorgeous skin, and vice versa.) Having good skin at age 60 due to expensive maintenance is hardly the same thing as driving around in a Rolls-Royce, but it is something we can look at and say, Oh, well, that makes sense, she's wealthy—especially when paired with other bodily markers of wealth like well-tailored clothes, certain kinds of shoes, etc. So we're back to the initial question: Are beauty products a form of conspicuous consumption, or of inconspicuous consumption? I'm leaning toward the latter but would love to hear arguments for the former. Thoughts?