Thursday, March 25, 2010

Moving targets

No one has an easy time defining "middle class". It helps that so many people move up and down the income distribution.

James Surowiecki has an equally tough time defining middle market ("Soft in the Middle") in the March 29 New Yorker.

Most accountrements (cars, electronics, attire) are now so widely available that they defy easy links to any "class" of customer. He writes:

The boom in information for consumers has also severely weakened middle-market firms. In the past, these companies were able to charge a premium price because their brands were taken as signals of reasonable quality and reliability. Today, consumers don’t need to rely on shorthand: they have Consumer Reports and J. D. Power, CNET and Amazon’s user ratings, and so on, which have made it easier to gauge differences in quality accurately. The result is that brands matter less: a recent Nielsen survey found that more than sixty per cent of consumers think that stores’ generic products are equal in quality to brand-name ones. In effect, the more information people have, the tighter the relationship between quality and price: if you can deliver a product or service that is qualitatively better, you can charge top dollar. But if you can’t deliver the quality you can’t get the price. (Even Apple, after all, couldn’t make Apple TV a hit.)
Of course. Retailing and merchandising were never simple. Fashionistas will forever be looking ways to signal status. But as the writer seems to acknowledge, hierachies are ever more difficult to nail down. And this trumps the class-warfare rhetoric that so man low-lifes cling to.