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Authenticity – The New Luxury

August 7, 2010

From OPEN Book: Trends, American Express OPEN

Consumers are eschewing traditional status symbols in favor of authentic products and services:

a story to tell means a story to sell.

Over the past century, rising disposable incomes have brought goods once considered “luxury” within reach of an increasing number of people. Now, a new breed of consumer is challenging the classic definition of luxury by seeking out a fresh form based on authenticity and exclusivity. A growing band of committed craftspeople – those who make beautiful, handcrafted products and those who offer tailored services requiring skill and time to achieve – are spearheading the new luxury movement.

Quality Not Quantity

New luxury can be characterized by one or more of the following: a single point of sale; the use of specially sourced materials to make the product; detailed consultation to ensure the customer’s exact specifications are matched; a curated shopping experience; a limited product range or supply of the product; and a trained, skilled workforce. Small businesses are ideally positioned to apply their working practices to providing quality rather than quantity, and will find that promoting great craftsmanship can pay dividends.

Business owners who already supply handcrafted goods should consider capitalizing on their existing operations by promoting their products’ provenance. The new luxury consumer appreciates the time and effort that goes into the manufacture of such products, so consideration should be shown to every aspect of production. The carefully constructed website displays its product range in between testimonials from satisfied customers. Carving hardwood toys from a wind-powered workshop, the one-man band behind the venture plants trees to compensate for the raw materials he uses (which are native to the area), and even writes to his child customers to explain the origin of their new toy. A green business before it became fashionable, the enterprise is naturally limited by the number of hours devoted to the craft.

The story behind the product is an attractive feature for the new luxury consumer. We Love Jam in San Francisco, California, produces limited quantities of its Blenheim apricot preserve each year. The owners discovered that the Blenheim apricot is an endangered variety and the orchard they use is one of the last remaining in the region. Each batch of jam is meticulously prepared using the finest ingredients and is only available for purchase via their website. Customers join a waiting list to alert them when the new batch becomes available every August. We Love Jam has redefined luxury by successfully navigating the fine line between elitism and quality, turning something as humble as jam into a luxury product for food lovers around the country by limiting the supply and keeping standards high.

From Supplier to Buyer

Business opportunities are also available to those who provide a curated or immersive retail environment for customers. In Portland, Oregon, Craig Olson and Sean Igo own Canoe, which stocks an eclectic mix of office and homewares that are united by a commitment to provenance, craftsmanship and quality design. Each product is accompanied by a mini-history, which makes the link from supplier to buyer and reinforces the Canoe brand values of timeless design and functionality. Olson comments: “In many ways it is a very Scandinavian or Japanese approach – the idea that products are to be used and enjoyed every day, not placed on a shelf only to fulfill some status role.” Canoe represents the growing breed of retailer mindful that, in an increasingly homogeneous world of Main Streets, discerning luxury consumers are becoming more demanding in their search for authenticity and are rejecting the mundane – whatever the cost.

The fragile economy has given rise to a segment of consumers who are reassessing mass consumption and traditional status symbols in favor of authenticity. Whatever the product, the central tenet is that new luxury goods should have a story to tell and offer an experience that goes beyond the price tag. Small businesses that take pride in combining quality materials, highly skilled craftsmen and a made-to-measure service are naturally in the best position to leverage this trend. Many of them are already proving that adopting new luxury practices is the perfect way to retain existing clientele – and to find fresh customers too.

For more articles and profiles on the trends shaping today’s business landscape, download OPEN Book: A Practical Guide to Essential Trends.

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