Revenge buying: a self-celebration
Revenge buying is a typical response to a time of crisis. Some interpret it as a coping mechanism, rooted in human psychology and sociology, against the fear of our own mortality; others see it simply as a matter of consumeristic gratification.
In recent weeks, marketing oracles have been heralding the return of revenge buying. It’s not a new expression, as Apolline Guillot, a philosophy graduate and student at HEC Paris, notes: “The term appeared in the 1980s after a surge in demand for products which were long unavailable to Chinese citizens –either due to shortages or restrictions on commercial activity. Now it's being used to describe the behavior of consumers who, upon exiting lockdown, are rushing to expensive shops to spend the money they had to save.”
Revenge buying is rooted in the anxiety about death. It is a deep-seated anthropological structure
Frédéric Monneyron, author of L'Imaginaire du luxe
But this consumerist frenzy is being driven by more than merely a rush to exercise purchasing power. So what exactly are the processes at work here? Frédéric Monneyron, a scholar and author of L'Imaginaire du luxe, believes that these mechanisms reach into the depths of human psychology. He explains: “Revenge buying is rooted in the anxiety about death. It is a deep-seated anthropological structure. Luxury brands are built on this anxiety, as demonstrated by the 300% increase in sales at the Hermès boutique in New York the week after 9/11, a similar increase in Hermès sales in Tokyo after the tsunami, and in Paris after the Bataclan attack in 2015. Luxury is a kind of safe haven that helps us cope with crises.” Guyot takes this explanation further. “In addition to the psychological mechanisms that push compulsive consumption to compensate for an imagined loss, several anthropological and philosophical factors can be identified that move people to spend lavishly after months of confinement: revenge, a renewed identity and the need for collective experiences.”
Celebrating your own triumph
For Nicolas Chemla, consultant and author of Luxifer, pourquoi le luxe nous possède, the rush to the shops after a crisis is the way for the consumer to become the hero in their own epic narrative. “Luxury is not a matter of morality; it’s about thrill, excessive hedonism, a step beyond the ordinary and the commonplace. Instead of revenge, I’m more inclined to call it gratification and self-celebration: we survived, we held out, we made it through, this is our richly deserved reward. This is really one of the main motivations behind the consumption of luxury goods: celebrating one's own triumph.” And he adds: “Nietzsche said it in the most politically incorrect way: ‘Luxury is a form of permanent triumph over all who are poor, backward, helpless, sick, unfulfilled.’
Luxury is not a matter of morality; it’s about thrill, excessive hedonism, a step beyond the ordinary and the commonplace
Nicolas Chemla, consultant and author of Luxifer, pourquoi le luxe nous possède
This is a fundamental truth, the anthropological underpinnings of which can be found in the North American Indian potlatch: great competitive feasts where tribes literally gorged themselves in the face of famine conditions, knowing they would have to fight hard to survive the rest of the year.” In other words, rushing to a luxury store is an attempt to heal the wounds inflicted by our own narcissism. According to Lucia Malär, Professor of Marketing at the University of Berne, people are driven by a need to control their lives. “Therefore, they react to events and ideas that reduce their control through compensation strategies. One might be purchasing luxury goods that signal a high social status, to boost our feeling of power. Secondly, escapism functions as a potential driving force as well. The act of consuming and shopping can help focus our mind away from the current Covid-19 pandemic.” Véronique Yang, managing director and partner at the Boston Consulting Group in Shanghai, is more skeptical. “For luxury brands, the key is connecting with consumers on a deeper level, not only through products and launches, but also through the brand's goals and its role in society. That role has to be a sustainable one, which flies in the face of the motivations behind revenge buying."
The pitfall of overconsumption
As immediate as it is fleeting, revenge buying carries with it the image of frenzied consumerism, which is diametrically opposed to the notion of sustainability that more and more luxury clients are demanding. “Overconsumption will probably lead to pandemics even more deadly than the one we have just experienced,” Malär warns. “To make this revenge sustainable, consumers might seek out second-hand products over new ones, or opt to rent instead of buying.”
One might be purchasing luxury goods that signal a high social status, to boost our feeling of power
Lucia Malär, Professor of Marketing at the University of Berne and member of the SCLR
Nicolas Chemla, on the other hand, sees no contradiction between sustainability and revenge buying. “One does not rule out the other. If it all comes down to banning pleasure, to suppressing the passion for beautiful things and craftsmanship, the ‘world after’ will have to wait. What the coronavirus has shown is that people continue to crave pleasure, dreams, beauty and thrills.” His view is shared by Frédéric Monneyron: “Luxury goes hand in hand with sustainability,” he says. “It may even be a defining quality of it. As Pierre Bergé said, ‘Luxury is something that lasts.’ On the other hand, the demand for sustainability, which the pandemic has undoubtedly intensified, could mark the decline of fast fashion. Certainly, those who could not afford to go to Louis Vuitton or Hermès flocked to Zara. But it was more out of simple frustration and the need to shop for clothes than a desire to fight off time and death.”
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