2/7/15

Perfume Econ 101 (The Not-For-Dummies Version): Max Factor Signature for Men - And It Doesn't Even Have Your Name On It.




My belief is that many vintage fragrance buyers are being ripped off. There are some fragrances that are worth paying top dollar for, but most are egregiously over-priced. When you consider the number of high-quality fakes saturating the market, and couple that with whatever true historical context certain vintages inhabit, it becomes very difficult to discern the bargains.

Here's a good example of a vintage rip-off: current prices for Max Factor Signature for Men, an American toiletry line released in 1950. There were Signature colognes, aftershaves, aftershave talcs, and deodorants, until the line was discontinued in the eighties, probably around the time Proctor & Gamble took over. Take a look at this LIFE Magazine advertisement from 1963, in which the version of Max Factor cologne that I own was priced at two dollars and fifty cents. Now adjust that price for inflation, and view it in 2015 dollars. The same bottle should now cost twenty dollars. If you're selling it and want to double your money, you could ask forty dollars for it, no problem. The stuff is fifty years old, after all.

Let's be generous and say you want to triple your money and get sixty dollars for it. That's not completely unreasonable either, for a long discontinued fragrance that most people have never heard of before. It was a somewhat successful fragrance, surviving thirty years in several iterations, and I certainly would agree with anyone who said it smelled good, although it's not my taste. When I reviewed it in 2011 I said it smelled a lot like Aqua Velva Musk, a cologne I happen to dislike, but I've been testing it more in recent days, and now feel it has much in common with Royal Copenhagen. Still not my thing, although certainly a decent scent. It's very musky, very powdery, very old-world barbershoppy. Every once in a while it hits the spot.

Now take a look at this recent Ebay listing for the exact same bottle of Signature. The seller, a Mr. Goldstar972, is asking $100 for it. What the fuck?

This guy isn't looking to double, or even triple his money. He wants to quadruple it! Now if this were something by Yves Saint Laurent or Chanel, I'd say maybe that's reasonable, given the product's pedigree. It's an old, forgotten cologne by downmarket Max Factor. Why would anyone price it at a hundred dollars? One answer: greed.

I can tell you that if you're in the market for Signature, but are discouraged by Ebay prices, you're better off just getting a new bottle of Royal Copenhagen. It smells a little better (fresher herbal notes up top) and costs around ten dollars for a three ounce bottle, and maybe twenty bucks for eight ounces. Now there are a couple five ounce Max Factors on Ebay that are going for under fifty dollars, but they're all "splash" bottles that have probably been tampered with. One is not full, and the other is an aftershave. The same size is also being sold by other sellers for over one hundred dollars, which should also raise eyebrows. None of these prices reflect what the stuff is worth now in 2015 dollars, relative to what it was originally worth in 1963.

Contrary to what some might think, perfume is not a design product that becomes more valuable with time. Perfume is "perishable." It goes bad, it goes stale. It doesn't last forever. Even if it does last, it changes. It becomes distorted. Time is usually not very kind to it. In the rare cases where it survives time's ravages (Ocean Rain is one), it's a crapshoot hardly worth taking unless you simply don't care about the money.

I've had some conversations in the past about collecting vintage signs. Some people don't understand why a large metal Coca-Cola sign from 1950 is worth a thousand dollars. They say stuff like, "It's just a rusty old sign for soda." Well, yes. It is a rusty old sign, true. But guess what? That rusty old sign still does exactly the same thing that it did in 1950 when it rolled off the press and was hung over a gas station somewhere: it sells Coca-Cola. It has no moving parts. It cannot break. It has not deteriorated to the point where you cannot read it and understand its message, and it now has the advantage of being over half a century old, which makes it a vintage item, and most likely very rare.

That bottle of perfume from sixty years ago? The chances that it does now what it did then are slim to none. Sure, it still does something, and probably possesses enough chutzpah to make its wearer feel more confident on a Saturday night, but it was definitely MORE effective within three or four years of its release. The biochemical materials that comprise its formula have changed, degraded, lost their strength, their balance, and while they are still detectable and perhaps pleasurable to the nose, they are not performing nearly as well as they used to. Therefore unlike the Coca-Cola sign that continues to perform just as well now as it did then, a vintage perfume's true value has barely kept up with inflation. The jerk on Ebay who is asking $100 for a used bottle from the sixties should really be pricing it at twenty to forty dollars. That is its fair value.

Design elements only appreciate in value when they retain their functionality. When that functionality declines, so does the price (just look at old cars). Would I pay a hundred dollars or more for Max Factor Signature? Maybe, if I didn't know better. But I do know better, and so should you. Besides, I already own the stuff. I found it when I was helping my friend clean his house, and he gave it to me. I can tell you that it's in the best shape it could possibly be in given its age, and I sure as hell wouldn't sell it for more than fifteen dollars.


5 comments:

  1. "The jerk on Ebay who is asking $100 for a used bottle from the sixties should really be pricing it at twenty to forty dollars. That is its fair value."
    Wellllll......in these days of outrageously priced 'collectibles' & internet auctions it's worth whatever some schmuck will pay for it.
    "Fair value" doesn't have anything to do with it.
    Anyhow.
    Would you consider doing a list of 'drugstore bargains' for teenaged romeos?
    My 15 & 19 yr old sons like fragrance but are rather less than judicious in their use thereof. So perhaps something that when over zealously applied still appeals to 'the ladies' but won't stink mom & dad out.
    I'm getting a bit tired of Old Spice & Brut & anything Axe is banned from the house.
    I only visit the US every 3 yrs to shop but I've started a list from what I recall as being inexpensive yet non offensive-
    Jovan Black Musk
    Halston 1-12
    Coty Aspen
    Stetson Sierra
    Usher for him
    Yardley Citrus & Wood (a good dupe for Terre de Hermes)
    Liz Claiborne's Curve (or one of the Curves?)
    Anymore you can add or do you know if any of these have drastically changed?

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    Replies
    1. So whatever some schmuck will pay for something is what it's worth on a commercial market, eh? By that logic every merchant in the world, from Walgreens to Harrod's, would simply throw dramatically inflated numbers on everything they sell and just hope the schmucks do the product valuations for them.

      I don't think so.

      What we're seeing a lot of on eBay are "corrections" to the flawed schmucking that occurs. One idiot posts Red for Men on there for $125, and an even bigger idiot buys it, not to use, but to resell at a profit. They attempt to resell for $200. Nobody bites. They retry for $180. Nobody bites. This goes on until they either give up and eat their purchase cost or they eventually make a $10 profit off a like-minded moron, which is erased by shipping costs. Or, in the case of Red, the current owner of the perfume license just re releases the product at $6 an ounce, and all the sentient ebayers cease trying to profit off vintage bottles altogether.

      I'd post a list here, but I'm tired now. Look forward to a blog post listing good cheapies for teens next week, per your request.

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    2. "By that logic every merchant in the world, from Walgreens to Harrod's, would simply throw dramatically inflated numbers on everything they sell and just hope the schmucks do the product valuations for them. "
      Having been a pharmacist for 20 yrs (even worked at Walgreens for 2 yrs- HORRIBLE EMPLOYER) I can tell you that medications in the US are marked up from 300-1,000% - whatever the market will bear. "Fair value" be damned!(Compare this to India where profits on drugs are regulated by the federal government- your medications are cell packed with the maximum allowable price printed on them with as per Indian gv't reg. If the pharmacist or wholesaler overcharges you for your meds in India & get caught- they go to jail or pay a massive fine & lose their license.).
      It doesn't matter what the 'even bigger idiot' unsuccessfully tried to resell the RfM for - the "One idiot' made his profit.
      Once again 'fair value' be damned.
      If the current owner of Red rereleases the product well don't you know the magic word 'vintage' makes that older bottle Red worth sooo much more.
      So another schmuck buys it on Ebay.
      And so the saga continues....maybe the 'vintage' Red buyer could sell outrageously priced 'vintage' decants claiming reformulation of the new product or inferior quality ingredients.
      Anyhow- I shan't be buying anything on Ebay nor any 'vintage' fragrance here in Nepal. (Whole lotta shakin' still going on here though, averaging 4-5 aftershocks of M4 to M4.8 daily.)
      Look forward to your post on teen cheapies!
      Dhanyabad (that means 'thank you' in Nepali)

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    3. Actually the issue with meds is more complex than you're describing. The generic market exists to undercut the brands, usually quite effectively. There is the pharmaceutical lobby in America that pays to prevent generics from being released on their original release dates, delaying the competition, which is called "pay to delay," but that further underscores how truly threatened these companies are by what purchasers see as "fair value." Although it also illustrates how corrupt the oligarchy we live in is. PtD shouldn't be allowed.

      Then there's the fact that there are only a handful of labs producing our meds. This creates the classic "supply & demand" dichotomy, and here the supply is limited by the demand. Hundreds of millions want meds. Only a few places can make them and sell them.

      This isn't the case with perfume. What you've described with pharmaceuticals is a real market in action. However, with perfume, the market is perceived to exist, without a solid consumer base to prove it actually does exist. My argument with wildly inflated prices for formerly inexpensive designer scents has always been consistent: show me why it was discontinued in the first place, and I'll show you why its cost should remain flat, not marked up. Why should I pay $250 for 3.3 ounces of Davidoff Relax? It was originally under $60, and it was axed because more people disliked it than not. It's like trying to sell a seventies-style leisure suit at a 300% mark-up, just because you can't buy it new anymore. Good luck with that.

      But it happens a lot with perfume. Why does it happen? That gets into the second reason I've always given: the product is merely cycling between merchants, rarely selling to a person who will actually keep and use it. This is why the same bottles of Relax keep getting sold and reposted for higher prices. Not really making a profit there, if your whole business is to sell vintage. No regulation means sloppier inventory. Unless you were the original owner of a scent, the odds of making a profit are slim.

      I mentioned this when I bought Furyo at a brick and mortar store for under $50, and KL Homme for about $35. Both frags were significantly more expensive on eBay. I even asked the merchant for KL why he was selling it for so little. His answer in a nutshell: "how else am I going to move such an old, obscure scent?"

      Stay safe with the quakes ;)

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  2. Not to belabor the point BUT pharmaceuticals are even more complex than even what you describe. I briefly worked for Eli Lilly when Prozac first came out.
    Oh the wheelin' & dealin' with discounts, prescribing incentives, formulary incentives, & kickback schemes to drugstore chains, prescribers & insurance companies alike.
    Did I mention that Walgreens in addition to marking up meds at exorbitant rates also tacks on a $10 dispensing fee per prescription? Actually all drugstore chains do, as well as hospitals & clinics.
    I used to go to art & antique auctions quite a bit when I lived in my native SF Bay area. Auctions are not the place to go to for 'fair value' & true bargains are rare to be had.
    That's the thing about the US, no matter what it is, how questionable or crappy- some schmuck will buy it. I perused Etsy recently (might have been more aptly name Regretsy in my opinion) & all I can say is it still holds true -Americans will buy ANYTHING.

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