Thursday, October 29, 2009

Fiddling while commuters rush by

A young musician is in a Washington DC metro station. He wears jeans, a long sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. It’s Friday morning. A violin is in his hand. The case is open at his feet. A few coins and dollar bills are inside as seed money to stimulate contribution. At 7:50 am, he begins playing. He continues for 43 minutes. During this time, he plays through six classical pieces, including the stunning Bach Partita in D minor. His music resonates through the entire metro arcade.

About a thousand people pass by. Almost all ignore him. Twenty three of them glance momentarily and wait. Seven people stop to listen for more than a minute. He collects a total of $32.17.

The violinist is Joshua Bell. He is one of the great musical virtuosos of our time. He sells out concert halls. He plays to capacity audiences all over the world . Now, here he is, in the Washington Metro, playing an 18th century Stradivarius violin, and just seven people stop to listen for more than a minute. (Interestingly, according to Washington Post reporter Gene Weingarten, who concocted this Pulitzer-prize winning experiment, every time children walked by the performance, they tried to stop and listen. And each time, a parent swooped them up and kept walking.)

What does this experiment show us? It depends on your perspective. Are we too busy to appreciate beauty? Was Bell just a bad busker?

One lesson to draw from the story is how much we can learn from well-designed, rigorous real-world experiments. When the reporter first proposed the experiment, he anticipated that the music would draw a throng, perhaps even create problems with crowd control. Instead, he learned that only a very few classical music fans (and children) would stop to enjoy the music. No focus group or interview would have provided the same insight. More importantly, the experiment demonstrates the central role of context in generating a reaction, whether it’s a crowd of commuters or shoppers. Humans have a hard time assessing product quality on its own merits; rather, the environment powerfully shapes decision making. Imagine if someone were to set out a cheap folding table in downtown Chicago displaying piles beautiful couture shirts with a hand-lettered sign selling them for $10. Most likely, people would ignore the display on their way to Macy’s or Nordstrom, because there would be no cues, such as designer labels, admiring sales associates, or piped in classical music, alerting them that these shirts were in fact valuable. For stores, carefully designed research could help figure out what in the environment causes shoppers to line up and what makes them walk on by.
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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Back to the hedonic treadmill?

What happens now that Fed chairman Ben Bernanke has officially declared the recession “ likely over?” Consumer spending, still sluggish, is finally on the rise. Nobody is yet breaking out the champagne – and as bloggers and cartoonists among others have warned, the economy won’t truly rebound until jobs return, and right now it’s still not a pretty picture. But is a new frugality here to stay, or will we soon return to some of our old ways? It may depend on your rung on the ladder. While working stiffs grabbed private label bread and took staycations, the rich curtailed their purchases of fine art and sold off the private jets. Sure, the recession slammed the fortunes of rich and poor alike – Bill Gates is out $3 billion -- but the families who had $20 million before the recession and then found their assets depleted to $14 million were never in jeopardy of going hungry. To some extent, the wealthy went on a time-limited spending diet because of a jarring hit to their balance sheet, and because for at least a while it appeared unseemly to flaunt lavish purchases when so many people had fallen on hard times.

But here’s a truism which bears repeating: the rich can only hold out for so long. They really do need, or at least, really, really want what others may call non-essentials , like couture, art, and second homes. Once the stigma lessens, as Michael Silverstein of the Boston Consulting Group says, “…the rich will realize they're rich again and start to spend.” According to the 2009 Mendelsohn Affluent Survey, nearly a third of wealthy households purchased fine jewelry and a fifth purchased artwork or collectibles in the past year. As the recession slowly begins to thaw, the rich are very likely to go back to their old acquisitive ways, driving the recovery further and faster.

Luxury brands are salivating at the prospect they can woo affluent shoppers as they trickle back into the store. MarketWatch reports that at the Saks Fifth Avenue flagship store, the personal-shopping service area is ready and waiting and lavishly appointed with stunning views. In addition, the store is limiting stock and focusing on exclusive brands and lines. High-end brands are also focusing on offering top-notch quality and design; for example, Restoration Hardware has hiked prices 20 to 30 percent to distinguish its offerings from its lower-quality competitors. Exclusivity and great design have also kept Louis Vuitton and Hermes growing impressively, even during the recession. Some luxury retailers are toning down the flash a little, such as Fabergé, which has launched an online venture to allow shoppers to participate in “inconspicuous consumption.” While some have criticized these attempts to lure back the luxury market with high prices, exclusivity, quality, and discretion, we think they just might be enough to get the rich spending again.

Any chance the well-heeled are going to help spend us out of our troubles?
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