Luxury goods aren’t classy
As the Lunar New Year approaches, department stores are rolling out expensive luxury gift sets, including a 2 million won ($1,880) set of 10 dried yellow corvinas. I thought it was a joke, but I confirmed that the online shopping site was actually selling the set. The most expensive gift set, the “Special Dried Yellow Corvinas from Beopseongpo Yeonggwang, Set #4,” was priced at 2.47 million won at Lotte Department Store. The description indicates that it was a limited, one-time sale for the “best exclusive delicacy prepared by the masters.”
How many people can afford to pay 200,000 won for a fish no matter how delicious and special it may be? It is not some luxury Chanel or Prada handbag that you can show off. The fish will be gone after you consume it. If I were served such expensive fish, I would get nervous and get sick. Not many people would pay their own money for the fish, so most of them would be used as gifts. But they are likely to be more of a bribe than a holiday gift.
The tendency of conspicuous consumption driven by vanity is called “the Veblen effect.” For some goods, the demand goes up as the price increases. American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen wrote in his 1899 book “The Theory of the Leisure Class” that the upper class senselessly engages in conspicuous consumption to show off their social status. While it is unclear if the demand for the expensive fish set can be explained with the Veblen effect, it is true that the conspicuous consumption of luxury goods is a common trend in Korean society.
A few years ago, The Wall Street Journal quoted a report by global consulting firm McKinsey and Company and called Korea most “luxury friendly.” According to the report, 46 percent of the Koreans responded that they spent more money on purchasing new luxury goods in the last year than before, far higher than Japan’s 6 percent, America’s 6 percent and the European Union’s 5 percent. The portion is even higher than China, where 44 percent of the respondents admitted that they spent more money on luxury goods. Some 22 percent of Korean respondents said that showing off luxury goods is in bad taste, while only 5 percent said they felt guilty about spending money on luxury brand items.
No one should be blamed for paying his own money to purchase certain goods. The luxury buyers may believe that an expensive price tag comes with better quality. The psychology of finding exclusivity, a sense of belonging and self-satisfaction from luxury goods is also understandable. But it is regrettable that Korea has turned into a sitting duck for foreign luxury brands. After a series of price increases, some handbags cost as much as a small automobile these days. In Northern Europe, showing off luxury goods is considered senseless and indicates a lack of self-esteem. It is very rare to find people conspicuously dressed in luxury items. Owning luxury goods does not make the owner classy.
* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok