American Marketer


What is luxury?

February 10, 2012


By Gregory J. Furman

There’s a Spanish saying, “I complained because I had no shoes until I saw a man who had no feet.” Or, one more frequently cited, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”

Much to be said for the oft taken-for-granted by those-blessed-with-them luxury of feet and eyes. Especially, these days, with the return of those young men who have served abroad – some physically intact, some tragically not.

Leaving a mark
A dear mentor of mine, Neiman Marcus cofounder Stanley Marcus (“Mr. Stanley,” he was called in Dallas), defined luxury as "the best that the mind of man can imagine and the hand of man create."

When we spoke about this he told me he meant both luxury products and services. And that service was just as tangible and “felt” as a physical product such as a $200,000 Vacheron Constantin watch.

Coincidentally, my father’s name was also Stanley. He worked in the refineries for Esso Standard Oil/Exxon in Bayonne, NJ, all his life.

One of the “luxuries” I know he and my mother prayed for was the doubling of his hourly pay that went with a double shift (16-hour day). They called it double-time.

When the plant’s conveyor seized up (time being money) my father would get a call at 2 a.m., drag himself out of a warm bed, surely not overjoyed but surely more than grateful for the extra dollars. Which extra dollars mostly went into paying off the mortgage, a new fridge or putting new linoleum on our kitchen floor. Or other “luxuries” for our family.

As working-class Jersey kids, my three sisters and I saw “luxury” as a rare visit to White Castle for a feast of those tiny, insidious but irresistible and irrepressible grease-burgers.

Joke was you tasted them twice: when you ate them and shortly after for the rest of the day. A luxury that kept on giving.

Time to call it
Most people when asked about their definition of luxury, say, “Time.”

The luxury of time with those we love. Open time. Free time. Time for ourselves. Time to fritter time away if we damn well please. Time to dream. Time to pursue a passion. Time to dilly dally. Time to breathe deeply. Time without stress or the pressure of the clock. (Think of the gigantic clock looming over the assembly line in Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times.”)

More often than not “time” is followed by “love” and/or “health.” For boomers who refuse to age, the luxury of wellness is a trend that no business can ignore.

Luxury is often seen as things so distinguished by their inherent value (gems, precious metals, land, ocean frontage, certain urban or rural properties), so unique and special that they command a premium price.

Or, things so distinguished by the quality of the art and science lavished on and poured into them that they are and remain exceptionally and increasingly valuable.

American Express Publishing has defined four stages of luxury consumption by those that can afford the best. A kind of Maslow hierarchy: acquisitive, inquisitive, authoritative and meditative.

Acquisitive meaning the most boastful, least informed stage – all about braggadocio, the bigger more visible the brand, the label the better the boast.

Inquisitive a step up, meaning the beginning glimmers of serious interest in why great things or experiences cost what they cost, the wanting to know, the slavish reliance on experts.

Authoritative meaning the acquiring of more than a little knowledge and sophistication, no concern about bragging rights and insistence on influencing “the expert’s” choices or guidance, coming into one’s own and feeling comfortable in “the swim” of appreciation of luxury products or services.

Meditative meaning, having no or very little interest in stuff for stuff’s sake, “luxury” being more about experiences that validate ones achievement and bring happiness to one and one’s family.

Russia and Mainland China (which will account by 2015 for as much as 25 percent of the world’s consumption of luxury products and services, and by 2025 some say as much as 50 percent) are emerging from the “acquisitive” phase.

The United States (some 20 percent), Japan (some 40 percent) and Europe (some 30 percent) are all well into or moving into the “meditative” phase.

How brands face and market to the “acquisitive” customer or the “meditative” customer require very different strategies.

Increasingly, for the most sophisticated of luxury buyers, the “best customers” (those 10.4 million consumers with assets under management of $1 million or way more), luxury is about experiences so rare and sensually orchestrated, the experience and memories of them so precious, that they are the Holy Grail and much coveted.

Luxury brands are increasingly aware of this sea change. They market very, very differently to each group.

Used to be the luxury of shopping was characterized, half-jokingly as therapy. No longer.

American Express research shows that people are now shopping quite differently.

Gone fishin’
Having survived the latest Great Recession, the face the new luxury buyer presents to salespeople is one of exuberance.

The difference between a shopper who is shopping for therapy and one who is shopping for fun demands a very different approach to sales and service. This is dramatically changing the way that salespeople sell and serve.

Then there are the “little” luxuries: things or experiences that cost relatively little or nothing but provide immense satisfaction: good water, knowing how to tie a bow tie, dry firewood, a hot bath after a long day, superb olive oil, fresh caught fish, a smile, beautiful wrapping paper, staying in shape, afternoon tea, museum visits and other cultural experiences.

Very close to top of my list is an annual wilderness canoe trip with my nephew, Dan, up to Algonquin Park in Northern Ontario for a week tenting and canoeing in the wild.

No watches, computers, iPads or mobile phones. Seven hours canoeing and portaging tent, food, wine, cognac, books and fishing gear.

The campsites are so far apart that at night you can barely see your neighbors’ campfires glowing red across the wide bays. The water is so pure you can drink it out of the lake.

At two in the morning, we get up, get into our canoe, paddle out into the mirror-middle of Manitou Lake, do a slow circle taking in the great sweep of the Milky Way, a flawlessly clear sky, count shooting stars until we are sleepy, then back to shore, into our sleeping bags to be awakened only by the loons’ calls or the ravens’ hoarse croaks at dawn.

Alleluia!! A full, empty-of-all-distractions week to read, to breath, to think, to be.

In the cups
Some say luxury is a necessity that begins where necessity ends.

Fred Siesel, a friend of mine, says, tongue-in-cheek, that luxuries are, “Things that no matter how much money you have cost too much.”

Provocatively, yours to agree or disagree, Ludwig Von Mises (1881-1973), one of the most notable economists of the 20th century, said, “The rich adopt novelties and become accustomed to their use. This sets a fashion that others imitate. Once the richer classes have adopted a certain way of living, producers have an incentive to improve the methods of manufacture so that soon it is possible for the poorer classes to follow suit. Thus luxury furthers progress.

“Innovation is ‘the whim of an elite before it becomes a need of the public.’ The luxury today is the necessity of tomorrow. Luxury is the road maker of progress: It develops latent needs and makes people discontented. In so far as they think consistently, moralists who condemn luxury must recommend the comparatively desire-less existence of the wild life roaming in the woods as the ultimate ideal of civilized life.”

One of my favorite definitions is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s: “It is a luxury to be understood.”

More heartbreaking: “This water we can drink now is a luxury for 1.2 billion people in the world.” That was from Jan Eliasson, former chairman of the United Nations working group on emergency relief.

LUXURY AND THOSE that can afford and appreciate it will never leave us.

The top 5 percent today account for the majority of spending on luxury products and services.

The increasing disparity between the the haves and the have-nots, the shrinking, if not disappearance of the middle class, challenge individuals and corporations to think very, very differently about their obligations to the less fortunate.

To make and take time to read, to think and do something about the many imbalances is indeed an important luxury.

As was my writing of this for you and the luxury of my imagining you with glass of wine or single malt in hand somewhere cozy giving me the courtesy of your interest and attention.

For which, gratitude being high on my scale of truly necessary luxuries, I warmly say, thank you.

Gregory J. Furman is founder/chairman of The Luxury Marketing Council, New York. Reach him at