Price and Quality, this weekend in Massachusetts…

This weekend I was in western Massachusetts, in an outlet store, and I stumbled across a perfect example of an issue I’ve been thinking about since I started working with my father: the trade-off between price and quality.  It was a chair very similar to the one in this image.

Bergere version of our Rope Chair

It’s a knock-off variation of our Rope chair pictured here.

FPV Rope Chair, R139

Perhaps “knock-off” is the wrong word to use.  It is clearly a bergere form, whereas the back of ours is open.  Plus, the original chair was not our design anyway (I believe we are perhaps the only firm with patterns based on the 1870’s Napoleon III original, however) and “knock-offs” are a part of this business anyway.  What shocked me was the price.  The bergere was selling for about $2,000 in the store. 

 Suffice it to say, we could not carve, finish and upholster one of our chairs for even close to that cost!   

 Now, there are some important differences that must be pointed out.  Ours is a gilt finish.  Ours has tufted upholstery.  Ours has a stretcher.  Our carving has greater detail.  The proportions of our rope is consistent.  The tassels of our arm-posts are free-standing from the posts. And so on… 

R139 side detail of arm post, leg, and stretcher

But at some point you have to ask, does the client signing the check care?  Would they rather have the more expensive, detailed example of fine craftsmanship, or would they prefer the inexpensive example that gives a similar idea of the original?

I believe that more and more, clients are opting for the later. 

Certainly, the current recessionary times do not help, but it’s my opinion that the average client is more interested in the “idea” behind a piece and the look or feel of their home as a result.  You could call them the “aspirational” client.   The apsirational client may make the choice based on price, or simply because they are unware of the custom option, or the reasons behind the cost difference.   But, for whatever reason, they decide to spend their money based on how they want their home to feel.

Now, there is still a client out there that does want the detail and does want the craftsmanship, and is willing to pay for it.  But, similar to knowledgeable collectors becoming fewer and fewer, I think there are fewer and fewer of these clients around.  From a personal perspective, when these clients place an order it is exciting from the production end, because these are usually jobs that push your boundaries a bit and require you to really engage your creative side.  But if I am right and there are fewer of these types of clients, it means that high-end customized furniture and craftsmanship will continue to be relegated to its niche.  And, without getting too Malthusian, we will continue to see a dwindling of the bespoke production trades in America.  Small talented craftspeople and firms will need to find others ways to stay relevant.

I pulled this post together quickly and did not take the time to find supporting hard metrics.  Most of my opinions here are a result of my observations and then stumbling across this chair.  So please tell me what you think, or if you feel differently.  I would love to know.  Just one clarification: I do not place a value judgment on these two diffferent client groups – one is not superior to the other.  The 2 groups are themselves a gross over-simplification I used to illustrate what I think I see happening in our business.  In fact, sometimes the same client can act both “aspirational” and more custom oriented.   I simply want to note these observations to help us make more informed business decisions, and if I am lucky, some of our readers’ as well.

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