Why People With Money Spend Stupid Amounts Of It At Overpriced Stores

When I was growing up, and needed new shoes/pants/sports coat/belt/tie for cotillion or picture day at private school or Mother's Day brunch at my grandparent's club or some other socioeconomically distinct affectation, we could go to a local men's clothing shop that used to be on Lake Avenue on Pasadena. I can't remember the name any more, but it had been there forever, and the people who helped you had fought in the Crimean War and had measured your grandfather's inseam and could get you into your monkey suit posthaste. More importantly it wasn't ruinously expensive; boys who went to expensive private schools and boys dressing for worship at modest working-class churches shopped their alike. We grumbled but it was a relatively merciful experience.

A couple of weekends ago I had to take my 12-year-old son, a bright and athletic young man who is currently the Yo Yo Ma of insolent tween sullenness, to buy shoes/pants/belt/tie/shirt/sports coat so he could have his seventh grade class picture taken at the same private school I went to. The Pasadena store is no more. All of the stores like that I knew — independent, local, moderately priced, with helpful staff — are no more. I don't think they can compete. What's left are chain stores, small stores that are cheap but terrible, and select small stores that are competent but deliberately grotesquely expensive and frequented by people to whom that doesn't matter.

So we went to the mall, and tried Macy's. Marcy's has decided to be competitive on prices. Macy's was a zoo, and the coat racks had been organized by the chimpanzees, and the quality was questionable and nobody was available to help and it looked like I would be there for hours as my son grew a dark ball of hate in his heart for me and for existence itself, trying to put together an outfit and figure out sizes.

So we walked down to Nordstrom.

At Nordstrom, a polite salesperson approached me immediately and assessed my need and conveyed, without words, that she would equip my son completely in suitable good-quality clothing that fit in about 15 minutes while I sat, and for the privilege I would pay — well, let's just say it was about half the monthly rent on my first apartment. She did; I did.1

With the hours saved and the filial goodwill preserved, we went to a diner and had burgers and watched football together, and talked about not liking ties.

I can live with that.

  1. It was still about 25-50% less than I would have paid at the remaining-but-deliberately-grotesquely-expensive men's stores in, say, San Marino.  

Last 5 posts by Ken White

Comments

  1. Mike says

    There are two local maxima in terms of customers – people who have time and no money, and people who have money and no time. Regardless of where they would *like* to fall on that line, most people will, when pressed, choose one extreme or the other.

  2. mcinsand says

    The fact that we still tie things around our neck as decoration is concrete proof that we have a long way to go before we can call ourselves intellectually civilized.

  3. Peter H says

    I think you missed a market segment there. There are a bunch of chain menswear retailers whose prices are mostly reasonable and who will do on the spot fitting/tailoring. I'm talking places like Men's Warehouse and such. Sure, they're big chains, and they often only have good prices as a part of a gimmicky sale, but c'est la vie. I know my dad took me there a few years back when I needed a suit and it ended up being like $175-200ish?

  4. Chris M says

    Here's the secret: Go find out where middle-income black guys buy their suits for church. In the city I live in (most racially segregated in America!), that lead me to the K&G fashion superstore. Assuming that you're a white guy Mister Pope Hat, if that even is your real name, you and your kid likely be the only white dudes in there. When I shop there, I like to think that all the clerks are like "hey, there's one guy who knows where the low-cost high fashion stuff is hidden, bravo fair sir."

  5. delurking says

    "well, let's just say it was about half the monthly rent on my first apartment."

    I take it this was meant to convey "a lot". You obviously lived damned well in your first apartment.

  6. Pierce Nichols says

    Tying a noose around my own neck before embarking on an important endeavor strikes me as tempting fate entirely too much. I make an exception for weddings and funerals, where the memento mori effect is both appropriate and salutary.

  7. says

    I tried running one of those independent, local, moderately priced, with helpful staff stores. I got my ass kicked. The other Mike above is correct on his two maxima, unfortunately there are all too many of the "have time and no money" types where I had my store.

    Nordstrom does manage a middle ground.

  8. Ann says

    On a kind of unrelated note, I was just thinking today about why people spend outrageous amounts of money on shoes in Second Life–virtual shoes, of course. I'm talking maybe 40 actual American dollars.

    (The good news about virtual suits, whatever the cost, would be that you could tailor the person to fit the suit. :-))

  9. says

    Lucky you. Although I, too, am a lawyer, I work for a non-profit (and worse, a pro-free-market non-profit that gets no taxpayer money), so my income is low, I live in a two-bedroom house, and I shop at places cheaper than Macy's. I buy shirts at Goodwill (like my alligator-playing-saxophone T-shirt and some of my dress shirts).

    Fortunately, my daughter is only six, so it will be years before she develops a "dark ball of hate" in her heart for her low-earning father. The toys and electronic games and devices 6-year-olds like are cheaper and more easily affordable than clothes and accessories for a teenager. (Although my wife is already getting annoyed by the small size of our house.).

  10. sponge boy says

    I always enjoy reading Ken's posts, mostly for the excellent incite, but also for the grammar lessons — there's almost always a word used that I had not heard before. Today's example:

    Filial [adjective]: of or due from a son or daughter.

    Thanks.

  11. Mike says

    For what it's worth, I've found Nordstrom Rack to be a completely agreeable place to buy formal-ware; the selection is smaller than Nordstroms proper (but still larger than the tiny botiques). Since I'm a classless boor, a wide selection isn't that important to me, though, and the prices are generally quite low. I bought a very, very nice off-the-rack calvin klein suit there, had it tailored-to-fit overnight, and took it home the next day, for about $300. That's a lot of money for a single article of clothing, but I am now impeccably besuited and I've worn it for all of my job interviews, weddings, and other formal events since then. You'll never beat Goodwill for sheer price, but if you're trying to maximize for quality/fashion and minimize for price it's probably a good place to start your search.

    They also have a wide variety of ties, of varying price and quality. I found some really nice ones in the $12-$15 range, which is about my price ceiling for enough rope to hang myself with, so to speak.

  12. JDDrew says

    One reason I like Nordstrom – it's one of the few places where "no thanks, I'm just browsing right now" is accepted at its face value rather than as an admission that you are a career criminal.

  13. AliceH says

    When I was young, I had time, energy, but no money.
    When I was middle aged, I had money, energy, but no time.
    Now that I'm retired, I have time, money, and no energy*.

    (not really true – I just liked the symmetry.)

  14. Dave Ruddell says

    I was in a Nordstrom one time just killing time looking at shirts or something and one of the sales guys walked up to me, introduced himself, and shook my hand. It actually sort of freaked me out a bit; actual customer service.

  15. says

    I don't really like ties. I don't wear them that often: job interviews, funerals, and very occasionally when I feel like dressing up as an adult.

    That said, I would buy a Popehat tie. Maybe a black background with repeating tiny Popehat logos?

  16. R. Penner says

    I think a manager at work though they were being generous by giving away a $50 Nordstrom's gift card. I figured I could buy socks and underwear with it. I got socks.

    But they are very nice and I went back with my own money from time to time. And if you are in a hurry, they are perfectly willing to oblige.

    Nice to see we are in the same state, Ken.

  17. Ryan says

    @ Mike (2nd post) has this bang-on.

    Much as I would like to shop around and save money, most of the time I just cannot be @#$%ing bothered to waste hours to save maybe 10% of the cost. Obviously, the incentive to do this goes up with the price of the purchase.

    I think it's a sign that you've left your student days and reached comfortable middle-class-dom when you can spend an hour out shopping, realize the place you're at is charging 10% more than somewhere else across town and will not price match, and just say "Screw it, the price is worth avoiding another hour in shopping hell."

    At least the Internet makes it *much* easier to avoid the premium price because you can research most things at home.

  18. Shane says

    @Ken

    All of the stores like that I knew — independent, local, moderately priced, with helpful staff — are no more. I don't think they can compete.

    You are correct in that they can't compete. With the avalanche of rules, regulations, laws, zoning, environmental impact, business hatred etc, it is not surprising.

    Come to Texas you can even get your favorite shoes fixed here, at a local type store with and old guy and his wife still running it.

    Ohhh, how I miss the West Coast, did I say that out loud?

  19. Tom says

    My shopping philosophy is find it, buy it, get the hell out. I could proably find it cheaper elsewhere, but like Ryan above, my time and sanity is worth more than the savings.

  20. Aaron says

    @delurking:

    Depends on where he was living. If he was in the LA area, I wouldn't be surprised if it was $800 (at the time) for a 1 bedroom or studio. Unless he was way out in the north Valley or Riverside or someplace like that.

  21. Joe Blow says

    Some Macys have really decent suit selections. They're typically located in big cities and if there are 7 Macys in that urban area, there will be perhaps two of them. To get to the good quality business suits and cheaper young men's suits – go to the floor with the suits. The one that's marked on the sign. The suits will be glittery disco things and "athletic cut" suits that in reality, a pro bicyclist or professional anorexic couldn't fit into. Then ask the clerk where the other men's suits are. Inevitably, it's 2-3 floors further on up. You'll get there and find… it's much like Jos A Bank or Brooks Brothers, except less expensive. Decent quality, average cut suits.

    Macys hides these areas really, really well. Not sure what the business strategy is there.

  22. says

    Ken – you should drive a bit and try a good outlet mall (or hit one when you are traveling). There was a place in Sacramento (we were on the way to Tahoe on vacation) and I made the mistake of going into a Banana Republic Factory Store in there. Everything was so inexpensive (at least compared to LA prices) I couldn't stop buying stuff.

  23. JeffM says

    Maybe they are not overpriced. Maybe the cost of providing decent service is such that most people are not willing to pay it. In other words, service has become a luxury good.

  24. Wondering says

    Yes, this is my general experience with Nordstrom, too. They know their stuff, help you find it, and get you out of there. And for me, a petite woman with a size 5 shoe, they are one of the only places I can even find clothes that fit since most stores don't carry petites. I spent 5 hours once shopping at different stores and different malls trying to find a particular item, avoiding Nordstrom because of the prices. I couldn't find the right size anywhere. In the end, I ended up at Nordstrom anyway, wondering why I'd bothered elsewhere.

  25. Sinij says

    This reflects overall money distribution – middle class is struggling and looking for ways to save, top is doing better than ever and can afford to splurge, plus gap between the two are ever-widening.

    Macy's sell cheap crap because Macy's customers can only afford cheap crap.

  26. Sinij says

    >>>Come to Texas you can even get your favorite shoes fixed here, at a local type store with and old guy and his wife still running it.

    What about buying Tesla?

  27. wgering says

    I'll admit to spending entirely too much money on clothing. After years of not having my dress shirts fit properly (the sleeves are NEVER long enough), I started getting them custom-made. There are a few places that will do it online. They're typically ~$70 per shirt, but the material quality is damn good and the fit is almost perfect (I've had to take a few to the tailor for minor alterations, but I think the issue may have been moreso with my body than the shirt). Totally worth it.

    My suits/blazers are all Jos. A. Bank or Brooks Brothers. Pricey, but worth it. They needed to be tailored to fit properly though (I've yet to find an in-store tailor who did a passable job).

    Admittedly, I don't wear them very often (suits aren't exactly ANSI approved), so it's easy to take decent care of them.

    On the subject of tailors: good ones are hard to find, but if you can they are worth every penny. Mine is an eccentric little German man who can make a suit fit me like a glove. It adds an extra $75-$100 to the suit's overall price, but man does it look and feel good.

  28. says

    We had a shoe store like that in Atlanta. My grandfather and father had gotten their first real dress shoes there and so did I. Thankfully, they've managed to survive, mainly because their customer are fiercely loyal.

  29. says

    When I was growing up to (family) place to go was Kositchek's.

    Last I heard it was being run by the grandson (my brother's age) and he was training up the great grandson to take over the business.

    I used to love seeing the old man waiting on people when I would go there for clothes. He would be in his 120's if he were still alive.

    I assume that the son has taken his place as the "old man" providing continuity to the business.

    They always made sure that you left a "sharp dresser" without losing your shirt. I haven't been back there in a while, but from their telephone listing they're still in the same building where the business started. Now their art deco front fits with the rest of the block.

  30. Matt says

    My last suit was from Men's Wearhouse, in the $200-300 range. (I'd still be wearing my previous one, but, well, the last 10 years have not been kind to my waist line.)

    What I'd *really* like to find, at a reasonable price, are shirts that are NOT french cuffed, nor tuxedo shirts, but that I can still do cufflinks with (picked up a couple pairs around my wedding). You can find french cuffs easy, but I hate that rolled-over cuff – I just want a straight one. But I don't want to wear a tux shirt to do it. I'm afraid I'd have to get a tailored, bespoke shirt for it, though. Which likely wouldn't be anywhere close to the cheap I'd be looking for.

    But anyway – Mens' Wearhouse is ok. Get on their mailing list, every few weeks they're having some kind of sale. (Did my wedding tuxes through them, as a. it was easier to coordinate my groomsmen in multiple cities, they only had to find a local one for measurements, or just call in the #s, b. they had a deal where, with enough tuxes rented for the wedding party, mine was free, and c. they had the same colors as David's Bridal, IIRC, where my wife's bridesmaids got their dresses.)

    To get back on track – when I was in college, I needed tux measurements, and one of the frat guys I knew recommended this shop ("Russell's") on the main strip in the town, who would do free measurements and all that. Sounds like the same kind of place, and I wouldn't be surprised if my measurements were being taken by Russell himself. No idea if it's still there, though.

  31. XS says

    I dislike suits. IMHO they are not comfortable at all. In the last two years I've had to take up wearing suspenders because my butt isn't big enough to keep my pants from falling down. Clothing optional is beginning to appeal to me.

  32. NI says

    Shopping for clothes has become a miserable experience for the same reason flying has become a miserable experience (in addition to the TSA): The airlines, and retailers, both figured out that the overwhelming majority of shoppers care only about price.

  33. AliceH says

    Trying to make someone feel better by showing how much worse it could be is generally a waste of time, but I'm going to do it anyway.

    I grew up with hand-me-downs or what I could sew myself (not much). I remember every single trip with my mom to a clothing store in my youth — all one of them. I was 5 and we went to a discount store where I selected a yellow party dress with a puffy skirt with white lace that maybe cost about $10 and probably should have had a "keep far away from open flame" warning on it. Then I wore it to a birthday party, got chocolate ice cream on it, and never saw it again. God, I loved that dress.

  34. RNilsson says

    >>>Come to Texas you can even get your favorite shoes fixed here, at a local type store with and old guy and his wife still running it.

    What about buying Tesla?

    As my old man used to say, "A car is the poor man's overcoat".
    But a Tesla will fit anyone. Except maybe the extremely tall, who must wait for the Model X SUV with walk-in falcon wings access to the third row seats.
    And by that time, it may even be custom delivered by the Falcon Heavy VTOL rocket.

  35. Pedant says

    When I was a boy, my father shopped at Weber & Heilbroner (A men's haberdashery in Manhattan from March 19, 1913 to June 27, 1979). I shopped there till it went kerplunk. Luckily, we have daughters and so
    no son to bond with.

  36. mythago says

    Nordstroms is well-known for excellent customer service even if you are not a customer or will not be spending money there. I once had a Nordstroms clerk call around to a buddy of his at Men's Wearhouse to set aside a suit for us to go there and buy, since Nordstroms didn't have the right one. The Portland Nordstroms is also well-known for the 'lounge' in its women's room being a hangout for nursing mothers; they didn't care if you were a shopper, if you had a sudden need to feed your baby out of the rain, you were welcome.

    eBay is also, I have found, a really good source for suits if you are of a size that people tend to outgrow.

    @NI, consider, in this economy, how many shoppers have the luxury of caring about anything other than price.

  37. AlphaCentauri says

    IIRC, Nordstrom's has a price guarantee, i.e., they will match any other store's price. Which they can, because they don't sell cheap shit.

  38. Brad says

    Nordstrom's got fine pizza in their cafe. Get the barbecue chicken (not on the menu anymore, but they still can make it).

    So, Shane: I'm sure Texas is great if you're a large, incumbent business. But they do love to fuck over their citizens in favor of those incumbents (and of course the government). Even Connecticut has fewer blue laws. I'd go WA over TX any day of the week; the B&O tax is a clusterfrak, but WA has better gun laws, legal gambling, better coffee, better dim sum, and precisely zero blue laws that I've ever come across post I-1183. Oh, and unlike Houston, the Tesla store in Seattle is actually allowed to sell you cars, rather than merely allude to the possibility of them being for sale at an undisclosed price from a website they're not allowed to mention.

  39. Myk says

    @NI:
    The airlines, and retailers, both figured out that the overwhelming majority of shoppers can be made to care only about price.

    That's why so many locally owned and operated businesses are folding.

  40. Tarrou says

    Make good friends with some salespeople. They can often get you deals you couldn't get otherwise. I frequent a few stores, and rarely buy. I'm poor enough I can't afford to go about blowing hundreds on clothes. But occasionally, one of my acquaintances will call, say he has three shirts in my size his store is phasing out, and I can have them for twenty bucks, or something similar. I have suits that cost me a grand, from when I had more money than sense. And I have shoes that should have cost me half that, but I got free. Making the effort to know people is worth it.

  41. says

    We have nothing but ourselves to blame for this. We voted with our feet by buying the lowest-price at minimal-service stores, then wonder where the service went when we needed it. We fit ourselves into off-the-shelf dress clothes at the lowest price, then wonder why they don't fit quite right.

    Once we've gone to the off-the-shelf minimal stuff, the next step in competition requires reducing the number of distinct sizes manufactured and sold. Hence the difficulty in finding blue jeans with 35" or 37" waists, in finding wide or narrow shoes, in finding large-long rather than extra-large shirts. I'm now seeing men's "dress" shirts (things you'd supposedly wear a tie with) in XL rather than actual neck and sleeve sizes.

    The net effect is that quality service and good fit are no longer available even in the mid-range stores. Unless you're lucky enough to be a good fit for off the shelf sizes, only the high end (and the high price) can get you want. Want good fit at off the shelf prices? "Get used to disappointment."

  42. AlphaCentauri says

    I don't know about suits so much, but in a lot of cases you can do better on price and quality by going to the shabby sections of cities, where the rents are cheap and the customers are knowledgeable. Stores in malls have a lot of overhead to cover.

  43. wpender says

    if there's anything (other than "people are jerks") that my years in retail taught me, it's that you typically get what you pay for.

  44. Steve says

    As somebody who spent a year+ building a backend for their credit card system, I can say that they are the most customer-focused company I've worked with, out of 30 or so companies.

    Also, if you are lucky enough to have a Blue Stove restaurant in your local Nordstroms (there are at least two, in Santa Monica, CA and Burlington, MA), go to it. Go now. The food there is da bomb.

  45. DeeplyRooted says

    For fellow female readers: Nordstrom's lingerie department is fantastic at bra-fitting. The saleswomen know their stock backwards and forwards, and they can tell from a few quick measurements and a couple of test fittings what may work for you. I've never shopped anywhere else in the last few years — the savings in time and effort are more than worth the high prices.

    Another useful feature is that their system remembers which sizes and brands you purchased previously, so you don't have to dredge that information up out of your own memory. (Other stores may do the same, but they've never actively offered it as a shortcut to help with my shopping trips.)