12/10/16

What NES Classic & Hatchimals Teaches Us About Buying Vintage Perfume On EBay


A little while ago, a friend and coworker came to the office excited about something. Just the day before, Nintendo did the unthinkable and rereleased their original 8-bit system with 30 pre-loaded games, including all the major megahits of the late eighties and nineties. It retails for about sixty dollars from most of the big box stores (Walmart, Target, Toys-R-Us, etc.), and in their usual fashion, Nintendo has strategically issued a very limited quantity, letting stores stock an average of ten systems at a time.

The catch is that these systems are being throttled out to the public just two weeks before Christmas, making them the most sought-after gift of the season, second only to Hatchimals. Yes, that's right, Hatchimals, a weird, gimmicky, oddball toy that children and parents across the country must, absolutely must, must, must have. Last week a Hatchimal was retailing for $50. Earlier this week their prices went up, and now you'll pay anywhere from seventy to eighty dollars for one, if you're lucky enough to find it in a store. Most buyers aren't that lucky, and are forced to buy their Hatchimal from eBay.

Which brings us back to eBay, a wonderful place where every predatory seller and gullible buyer can convene and engage in the 21st century's idea of open commerce. If you search for an NES Classic Edition system on eBay, you will find a few, most priced at $250, and some for $300. Think about that for a second. An 8 bit video game system - an 8 bit system - with only 30 available games, is being sold for $300. This system lost currency twenty-five years ago, when Nintendo 64 finally invaded every thirteen year-old's living room and unseated the little grey king.

If you search for a Hatchimal, the $70 store prices disappear, and you can say hello to $95, $115, and even one $5,000 item, none of which are any different from what Toys-R-Us had in stock mere days ago. The craze for these weird little stuffed animals is intense, and competition for them is fierce. What is less clear is whether the craze will even last until Christmas, or if this is a rare case of a holiday hot ticket item that supernovas into a black hole of disgusted parents who gave up and got little Sammy or Susie a Cabbage Patch Kid instead.

My sense is that the lofty prices for these two items on eBay signify a desperation on the part of the buyer, and a veritable goldmine for the seller. My buddy at work has stood frozen and exhausted in eight lines in front of as many stores, huddled next to his girlfriend in a tent for six to eight hours straight, amidst ten or fifteen other wackos, waiting for the moment the store opens its doors and hands the first few people their ticket to buy a Nintendo. So far he has made $850 selling eight systems, basically doubling his money.

In recent years I've gone on and on about the ridiculous prices for discontinued and vintage perfumes on eBay, pointing out that many of these fragrances are being billed as somehow "desirable," despite being taken off the commercial market or simply being reformulated and kept in the game. You could spend eighty dollars on a new bottle of Polo from CVS, or you could hop on eBay and consider buying a vintage bottle of Polo priced at $300 by seller bad_doggy! The choice is yours.

Despite how absurd the choice is, I have been told repeatedly that the reasons for the $300 bottle of Polo, and for any similarly priced vintage fragrance that saw perhaps a little popularity in prior decades, are abundant and self-evident: they have "fan bases," they are examples of supply and demand, they are products that never deteriorate in chemical quality, and thus appreciate in worth, etc. Of course none of these reasons actually address why someone like bad_doggy! might think their price is reasonable.

They touch on subjective interpretations of the state of Polo cologne, and how the public interprets its worth, but fail to find a causal connection for why anyone would attempt to sell a bottle for four times the current asking price of the very same fragrance, or for why anyone would be crazy enough to buy it. To date, I have still not read a cogent argument for why I should consider a vintage bottle of any fragrance to be worth anything more than its original price, adjusted for inflation.

A 4 oz bottle of Polo cologne in 1978 was probably priced at about $35. Adjusted for inflation, that makes bad_doggy!'s bottle worth $129. Where does he get the other $171 from? Not only is his bottle of cologne probably a bit skunked from age, but it is in no measurable way superior, in packaging or practicality, to the $80 bottle at CVS down the street. You can't even argue that his vintage is rare; I have seen at least a dozen other such bottles on eBay over the last five years. (All of them were priced at over $200.)

What I see with the Nintendo and Hatchimal phenomenon is how inflated prices on eBay are actually formulated. The Nintendo is currently in very high demand, but there are almost none of them available, making supply egregiously low. The physics of commerce suggests this is the reason their prices are astronomical at the moment. But there' a little wrinkle, a crucial wrinkle, to that theory. NES classic will be available in wider distribution in January, after Christmas. Prices will remain fairly static for them in stores. If you're desperate for an NES Classic, why not wait until January?

The Hatchimal situation is a bit less contentious than the Nintendo deal, because supply is slightly better, and resale prices are a bit more reasonable, especially at $90. But again, this is just a crappy toy. A carbon egg with stress lines that is gently crushed by a weak robotic beak from within. Kids may love it, but it's not high tech, it's not particularly rewarding (it only hatches once), and why would anyone think $5,000 is a reasonable price?

Well, maybe because the item is being sold by a self-described war veteran with a tall tale about how catastrophe has struck, and he must raise the money to save his house. In other words, we are supposed to believe a total stranger on the Internet, and spend a gazillion times more than the retail asking price, out of the goodness of our discerning hearts. After all, the vet's story must be true. Nobody lies on the Internet, and certainly not on eBay!

In the case of Nintendo and Hatchimals, we see that supply is limited, and demand is high. In both cases, especially with the Nintendo system, there are people like my friend who see a golden opportunity to cash in by braving the elements, buying the product at the store, and reselling it on eBay for four or five times its retail price. This constitutes a trend where buyers are only buying to sell. In this regard, I see how the Nintendo phenomenon mirrors the vintage perfume situation.

Many vintages are "chronic" list items on eBay. Despite how rare they supposedly are, we always see bottles being listed, with prices that usually do not reflect their actual supply. There are currently 18 bottles of vintage Patou Pour Homme EDT listed, with prices ranging from $80 (for a mini) to $1,998 (for 3 ounces). Patou is supposedly "rare." This supposedly justifies its prices.

Contrast this to Davidoff Cool Water, a fragrance far more sought after, particularly in vintage form. A current search reveals there are no bottles of vintage Cool Water available, yet the Macy's in my city has a bottle accidentally in stock for $75. I have a bottle of late vintage on my bookshelf. I probably couldn't get any more than fifty dollars for it.

So why is a fragrance as dated and heavy and downright anachronistic as Patou Pour Homme enjoying $800 - $2,000 prices, while the far more historically significant Cool Water remains in the commercial doldrums? Why is it that I have to peruse eighteen listings, all of them with contradictory prices, when I search for Patou, yet the truly rare Cool Water gets zero buzz?

It's the Nintendo situation. People aren't really buying Patou PH to wear it. I don't care how rich you are, if you see there are 18 bottles of vintage Patou on eBay, and all are priced over $400, you're going to wait a little longer still to buy one if you intend to actually wear and enjoy it. Some day, you think to yourself, someone will wave the white flag and take a loss. They will take a loss, because almost all the sellers bought Patou for the same reason people are braving wild overnight lines in front of big box stores to buy NES Classic: to resell it.

The difference is that buying Patou PH to resell means you have to raise its already astronomical price to an even higher plateau of absurdity, and then say a prayer that you aren't out $800 in vain, that there really is someone greedy enough to spend $1,900 on your bottle. There is currently an $820 bottle from Germany that I have seen a few times before. I saw it last year for $650, and the year before for around $500. Clearly this bottle will never be worn by anyone. It simply trades hands between sellers, and will continue to do so until someone realizes they fucked up and spent too much on a fragrance mislabeled as "rare."

The difference is also that those buying the NES system on eBay for $299 aren't going to resell it. This price is its ceiling. The prices are contingent on the holidays, buyers know that the window of opportunity is limited, and thus far more competitive than the market for Patou is. Yet Nintendo is around the same age as Patou, far more dynamic in its cultural value, and still far cheaper than the fragrance.

The situation with eBay Hatchimals is simply demonstrative of how "dirty" the Internet is for gullible buyers. For every reasonably priced Hatchimal, there is one with a few dollars too many tacked onto the tag. There are sob stories from fake war vets, unsubstantiated "rare edition" listings, and any other iteration of "scam" that exists. When you stop to consider just how unremarkable the toy is, you realize that spending anything beyond retail for it is a poor investment.

So what is the lesson here? It's not complicated, and easy to remember: eBay is for bullshit artists and people who lack patience and wisdom. If you buy that $300 bottle of Polo, I don't know what else to tell you, other than that there's a Hatchimal with your name on it, and an NES Classic that I'd love to sell you.







14 comments:

  1. "eBay is for bullshit artists and people who lack patience and wisdom"

    You mean like most people? LOL

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    1. Do most people put LOL in all caps behind closed, fairly well punctuated sentences? No, but I know one blogger who does.

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  2. What does it matter? Happy Holidays!

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  3. I've noticed Beautyspin (which is now Notino) increases prices on certain perfumes if their popularity goes up too.
    I've never bought anything on eBay. I'm really not interested in buying 'vintage' perfumes simply because I've no way of knowing how they've been stored. I have seen some popular 'contemporary' fragrance brands (Montale, Hermes, Amouage, etc.) and high end makeup sold on eBay at less than average retail prices and am curious as to whether they're fake. I do know that shoplifters resell stolen items at bargain prices on eBay too.
    Anyhoo,
    May your holidays be YUGE!!! Mr Ross.

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    1. May yours be even YUUUUGER! Ms Maizoon

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  4. "You could spend eighty dollars on a new bottle of Polo from CVS"...

    The question is just how new the bottle of Polo at CVS is. I'm not certain that CVS is an authorized seller and they may be getting their fragrances from 3rd party distributors in the same manner that Target is.

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    1. Ok maybe they use a third party distributor like Walgreens and Target and Walmart and KMart and every other big box . . . but what does that have to do with my post?

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  5. A few thoughts on why people hunt for vintages (subjective thoughts about subjective motivations…) Firstly, there is the sense, rightly or wrongly, that the industry is in decline. Personally, I do feel alienated walking into Sephora (at least, the average one in Canada, which has a lot less selection that in the USA: no Hermes, no Guerlain besides l’Homme Ideal, no Chanel, etc. The bigger ones in cities like Vancouver or Toronto might have some Lutens, l’Artisan Parfumeur, or Tom Ford offerings.) So much at the designer level seems really weak and generic; most of the houses that the novice will have heard of or seen in print ads in the glossies, like Ralph Lauren, Gucci, Tommy Hilfiger, Burberry or Versace, have not put out a decent designer-grade fragrance in several years.

    If, as was the case with me, you checked out of the fragrance world sometime around the turn of the millennium, and have checked back in only recently, you might start by looking up old favourites, either in stores or online… This can be disappointing in the immediate, experiential sense -- why does the current formulation of Fahrenheit give me headaches when the vintage didn’t (and doesn’t?) Online forums can do more harm than good of course, when praise for vintages can be skewed by everything from nostalgia to aging bottles to memories based on a teenage metabolism that made you project like a monster when you were first slapping on Cool Water in the tenth grade. A lack of awareness of issues like olfactory fatigue can lead the new fragrance purchaser to doubt the efficacy of what they’ve got, only to read of earlier, more ‘potent’ formulations.

    But hold onto those air quotes… I think the interest in vintages (for many male buyers anyway) is a deeper issue. Fragrance is a product that operates in an intimate social space, and becomes closely connected with aspects of presence and presentation we’d all like to have more control over. The subject of ‘masculinity’ in any number of iterations & variations seems to have been one under constant, self-conscious reconstruction for the past two or three generations. Just looking at some of the language used to describe vintage masculines (‘powerhouse’, ‘beast’, ‘potent’, ‘long-lasting’, ‘natural’, ‘well-rounded’) is like wandering in a funhouse of male insecurities. Was it ever thus? Sure… But ours is such an age of intense transparency and information glut, that the contemporary consumer is painfully aware of whether his fragrance contains ‘deep’, ‘rich’ oakmoss or just some bland, banal synthetic. It doesn’t help that synthetics are such a part of our life now that the discovery of a new aromatic molecule is hardly (as it might have been in the age of hedione) the stuff of sales pitches. Besides, synthetics move so quickly these days into the mass market, that the transition from personal scent to ubiquitous air freshener or laundry detergent strips materials of their mystery (witness the new campaign for Gain, featuring Ty Burrell, which uses psychodrama worthy of 90’s Calvin Klein ads to sell laundry detergent). Maybe mystery and authenticity are both things we crave a little more of at this particular moment?

    In any case, I don’t really approve of the practice of collecting vintages conspicuously. I have had a few, found by chance at thrift stores, buying them for the (problematic) reference, and have mostly passed them on to my son, finding it hard to enjoy something I feel is more of a museum piece than a daily companion. As he put it recently, “when I wear [the recently discontinued] Narciso Rodriguez For Him, I don’t just worry about using up my bottle, I worry about diminishing what’s left of the world’s supply.” There’s a thought that’s bound to undercut your pleasure. Fragrance may be about at least in part about escapism, but I for one want my fantasies to have a future.

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    1. What a terrific comment. Very well said, all of it, thank you John. A few things . . .

      First, on alienation in your typical contemporary mall shop . . . this is the snake biting its tail. Statistically, fragrance wearers - serious, everyday wearers who have more than two fragrances - comprise less than 20% of the population in North America (the exact number is not known, but this is going off sales statistics). The numbers for designer comprise most of these stats, with niche remaining painfully miniscule in the grand scheme. Understandably though it is much harder to track the fans of niche. They may actually outpace typical designer audiences by a two to one margin, for all I know, if one were to get technical about it. But the point is that you must imagine walking into one of these Sephoras as one of "those people," (no air quotes) - a person with prosaic taste in whatever designer smells the most "blah" and "fresh."

      If you are one of these people, then you are the reason the "blah" exists. And they outnumber you, John. They outnumber me. They are a legion compared to anyone who bothers to read this blog. They want the "blah." They like the "blah." The word "generic" means little to them. All they care about is smelling good in the most abstract sense of the word.

      When you feel bored by the output of these companies that you've listed, you are in the minority. Sad to say, but true. The truth is that the very boredom you feel is the very thing most folks want to feel about the scent they spray on. To them, olfactory adventures are comparable to opening a forgotten refrigerator in August. They don't want that kind of adventure when they walk into Macy's. They want certainty. They want simplicity. They want "new" but also "familiar." They want what every fragrance behemoth focus group is all too willing to give them.

      Now about masculinity and the perception of permanent transparency in our digital age . . . . This aspect of our being, as adults, as men, is inescapable. We live on the cusp of 2017, and further on the 2020s. This is an age where "fake" has little currency. Everything is fake by now. Our digital playgrounds, our escapist video games, our clothing, our food, all synthetic, all false. So why not fragrance? Perfume thrives on fake. Without synthetics, perfumery does not exist. Synthetics, synthesis, the analog of whatever depth reality offers our noses beyond the bottle, all of perfumery depends on it to exist. Perfumery is, by definition, the manipulation of synthetics for olfactory pleasure.

      The problem I see is not that people cherish vintage, or are complacent about contemporary styles. I'm beefing at the people who attempt, with futility, to cheat time by pretending that a perfume appreciates in value with every passing year.

      As you point out, vintages are problematic references, they always feel more like historical artifacts than actual functional, wearable products, and there's guilt associated with actually using them up. To ever suggest that anyone should pay an arbitrary premium for a vintage, either because the fragrance has a "fan base" or because it's perceived as "rare," as with Patou PH, is to say that perfume is more than just a chemical mixture with a finite shelf life.

      The adjectives and descriptors you listed to describe masculinity directs my thinking back to Donald Trump, and the new age he is ushering in. He is the definition of obscenity, of bombast, of unbridled chauvinism and alpha masculinity. He's 6'4", well over 200 lbs, a hulk of arrogance, narcissism, and energy.

      But back when he was making his bones, fragrances like Zino, Witness, Lapidus, Krizia Uomo, and many other golden oldies were considered "generic," so how far can we take this line of thought? As far backward as forward, and arguably further still.

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  6. Thanks for this reply! I will need time to give it the proper mulling it deserves (code for a holiday beer run), but, 'briefly'...

    I hear what you are saying about mainstream tastes, though I think that the quality of what the middle-class buyer of a ‘luxury item’ like fragrance can expect has diminished in the past thirty years. Culturally, too, there are differences, in terms of how we expect our discretionary expenses to function as creative expression. I teach a design class, and one project asks students to take a selfie then research the social history of each item of clothing or accessory that they are wearing before arriving at a synthesis that accounts for tensions in terms of utility, luxury, class and culture. This is a lot of fun… We get to wonder why we wear what used to be our underwear as streetwear, or consider how many incarnations the humble Converse hightop has enjoyed, or ask whether a Docmartin boot retains any of the residual street cred of its punk/working class roots. One curious trend, however, is the absolute blandness of many of the ensembles, which the students wisely ascribe to the rise of the internet… the self-consciousness and the monoculture it promotes. Remember the term ‘normcore’ a few years back, or the Gap’s ‘dress normal’ campaign? Remember when ‘basic’ went from being a word used to describe a single item of clothing (a white tee or a pair of khaki pants) and became a subtly damning moniker to describe an entire lifestyle?

    From my (admittedly middle aged) perspective, this taste for mediocrity is about the desire to retire to a matrix of social camouflage (the ‘safe space’ of a flannel shirt, yoga leggings, an fruitchouli perfumes, for instance) that allows an extraordinarily limited, modular, ‘plug & play’ approach to self-expression. That is why I personally don’t see Trump’s administration changing the modular mediocrity of the mainstream. Without being politically partisan, I’d argue that his fakery is not as stirring as Reagan’s was, I’d guess that the generation of people currently in their late thirties and early forties is not going to enjoy the same soft economic landing as the Baby Boomers did, and that increase of technology in our daily lives is going to breed more headaches than did the colourful pageantry and escalating possibility of the mid-80’s. The currency of fantasy that made the 80’s so bad (and so good) seems to have been devalued, its giddiness replaced by low-key, constant social anxiety, with market forces geared less toward stable adults than their (than my) skittish kids.

    It’s probably disingenuous to hold up niches and vintages as solutions to these issues, but to answer the question you asked a the start of your reply, I guess I’d say that the desire for authenticity can be satisfied by both good ingredients and artistic ingenuity… You might need a little of both to make something that is both somatically and intellectually uplifting. The adjusted cost of the 4.2OZ bottles of Grey Flannel I purchased as a teenager at the mall is probably about $120), so maybe before I start complaining about Sephora, I should readjust my expectations… and accept that (in more ways than one) the mall is now the drugstore?

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    1. Sorry it took so long to respond to this, John. Had a few things come up in the interim and also had to give your response a good mulling. Here's what I've come up with:

      First, Trump will either be the best thing to happen to America, or the worst thing. I strongly suspect he'll be the worst thing. But that's actually not a total loss for America, or its culture. Monocultures, "norm-cores," "safe spaces," and the politics of embracing social camouflage deteriorate in the face of civil/social strife. Unrest, conflict, war, deep internal fractures in government, sudden poverty (widespread), and financial instability are destroyers of individuals and often destroyers of flawed institutions, but for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and I've come to realize that in America, sudden loss on a national scale - chaotic, food-stamping, food-rationing, military drafting, pseudoapocalyptic loss - translates to creation of colorful, vibrant, reactionary culture. People lose their manners. Geniuses are allowed to lead artistic movements. Humility finds its place in the natural order, and anger, resentment, pride, prejudice, and every other human firing pin fuels a burst of desperate honesty that transcends "norms" and enters realms of greatness, often unwittingly.

      Consider WWII and the cultural heaven that followed with Modernism, Abstract Expressionism, etc. If Trump creates an international upheaval, stumbles us into WWIII, or just moves our nation quietly into a state of tatters, the aggression and anger of people may find its way into bold, unique, disquieting perfumes, products entirely antithetical to the swill we suffer today. Let's give it time and see whether we win by his being competent and not destroying the world, or win by his being incompetent and destroying all the "norms" we've grown weary of.

      Secondly, the mall is not now, nor will it ever be the drugstore.

      I appreciate your analogy, but I think the one issue with it is that drugstores are often price point traps. You pay department store prices for old designer frags - you pay current designer prices for Sephora's stock. Often there are overlaps. But the one difference is that the drugstores in North America don't keep abreast of the trends. They're always six months to six years behind the times.

      The drugstore is simply a time funnel. Relatively recent (but not "new") designers can wander through, sometimes temporarily, but old classics like Polo, Obsession, Fahrenheit, Cool Water, Eternity, Giorgio for Men, stay in stock, and stay expensive. So I have to flip your paradigm: the drugstore is now the mall.

      The drugstore offers the variety of classics that malls have foolishly stopped pushing. Malls have contracted and shied away from legacy perfumes, which in my mind is why most malls are dying, and most drugstores are growing.

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  7. Gah, good points! Deserving of a longer follow up, but let's wait, watch and see as well. An artistic upheaval on the level of what Abstract Expressionism, Black Mountain College, and the Beats represented to, say, American Regionalist painting, and Social Realist novels of the '30's is something to think about; time to go back and read Greenberg's "Avant Garde and Kitsch." I would certainly concede your point re: malls, and think that your turning of my analogy on its head is sharply observed (the point had felt incomplete but flourish-y.)
    Happy holidays! I hope you get something nice and fragrant under the tree...

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