Everything is relative

At the beginning of the summer, I needed a dress. Badly. I was heading to three weddings with three completely disparate groups of friends - high school, college and grad school - and so with near-zero attendee overlap, I could easily wear the same dress to all three. The need was clear for something new and fabulous. So back in May, my friend Hillary and I set out to find the perfect summer wedding dress.

It didn't take long. We wandered into Language, a posh and eclectic Wicker Park boutique, and there it was. Green, silk, simple and gorgeous. It was $350.

For me, this is a lot of money, even for formalwear. But after serious flattery by the saleswoman ("That dress has never looked so good on anyone!"), serious convincing by Hillary ("I won't let you leave here without it!") and serious rationalizing by me ("If I wear it to three weddings, that's only like $115 a wedding!") I decided to get it.

I was still mourning over my bank statement a few days later, when I got a handwritten postcard from Language. Well, technically it was from Natalie.

"Hi Sara, Thanks for stopping in last week - hope you're enjoying your new Geren Ford dress! Stop back soon - we're getting lots of new summer deliveries! Thanks, Natalie."

While some people feel funny about receiving a personalized note like this, I thought it was fine. That dress was my biggest purchase of the year, and I was pleased to know that it was significant for the store too. I felt like an upper-class citizen, like Natalie and I were on a first-name basis. Like I come into Language once a week and drop $350.

But that's the thing. I don't, and I won't. This was a one-time deal, and if Natalie thinks that by sending me a 39-cent postcard I will become a regular patron of her establishment, she is barking up the wrong tree. I mean, the card is nice. It says my name and what I bought. It brings a smile to my face. But that is all. I almost felt bad, like some kind of poser. I wanted to write her back: "Sorry, Natalie, for making you think I'm someone I'm not. I really rarely buy such pricey clothing. You should send postcards to some of my building neighbors, who actually own their apartments."

Plus, quite frankly, the postcard gave no real incentive for me to return. You will be getting lots of new deliveries? Um, yeah, so will every other store in town. How is that motivating for me? I suppose if I were a fashion-crazed trixie I might rush back, but I'm not. So months go by.


Six months, in fact. And then I get a card in the mail. Huh. It's from Language. Now what?

This one is way more interesting. Still handwritten, and still from Natalie. Still addressed personally to me. But listen to this:

"We haven't seen you in a while! Please accept this $25 gift card on us - it's good on any purchase thru 12/31/06. Hope to see you soon!"

Whoa. Hold the phone. Stop the presses. What's this? Free money? A tangible gift card? An invitation to spend 25 big ones, just like that? And a call to urgency, giving me less than two months or this note will self-destruct?

This hard-sell tactic was completely different from the first one, and I'm slightly embarrased to say that it worked all too well. I felt compelled by a force, a force greater than myself, to leave my house, walk down the street, enter Language and buy something. This force was strong and unrelenting. This force, I have realized, is called Absolute Dollars.

Because it's not like they sent me a coupon. I have never been much of a coupon clipper, and I think it's because "20% off" has never really felt that substantial. Saving 20% is annoying if I spend a little, annoying if I spend a lot. If I buy Entenmann's crumb cake for $3.99, I'm saving like 80 cents. Eh. Not worth the trouble. And if I buy a lawn mower for $399, I'm saving 80 bucks, but hey, wait a minute, I had to spend $320 just to get the big savings. I've always felt like the currency of "percent off" was misleading and annoying. I realize that the more I spend, the more I save. But the keywords that turn me off here are "spend" and "more." So me and coupons have never really jived.

But this. This was no "percent off." This was absolute dollars. Regardless of how much I spent, I could subtract 25 from my total. I realize that Natalie didn't mail me a 20 and a 5, but it sorta felt that way. How could I let that solid, unconditional quarter-of-a-hundred-dollars go to waste?

Then, I further speculated, what if I bought something for $30? Then it would be like I had a coupon for 83% off! Whoa! And $25 is so much more than the usual coupons I receive, which are measured in cents, not dollars. The card was strange and exciting, and it was burning a hole in my pocket.


So here's what happened. I went in yesterday, tried on some pants, and found a pair I loved. They were $175. I proudly handed over my gift card, which brought my total with tax to $160.

Did you get that? I spent a hundred and sixty dollars on pants! Did I need those pants? Eh! Sure, I will love them and wear them, but that's not the point. The store lured me in with free money. But that free money turned out to be less than 15% of the total.

The cold, harsh lesson: everything is relative. Comparatively speaking, Language sending me $25 is like Target sending me $2. In absolute terms, and in the comfort of my own home, it seems like a lot. But in relative terms, and inside the four walls of a very upscale store, it is not a lot. Not a lot at all.

Language cleverly used "dollars" instead of "percent off" to reframe my savings. If the note had said "Please accept this gift card for 15% off your purchase," I would have thought more realistically about the prices of the store. I would have said "Well, great. That's like 15% of a $600 sweater." I would have done the math, and the math would not have been pretty.

But 25 absolute dollars helps you forget about the math. It's promotional genius. It takes a borderline shopper and reins her back in. Like a fish on a hook.

Language, you got me this time. And though I feel slightly duped, I hope your gift card scheme works. You've changed the language of savings (no pun intended) and as a high-end store, it can only work to your advantage.

When I was paying for the pants, I could tell I was one of the first to act on this deal, because the girl at the register had never received a gift card before. I doubt I'll be the last.


Rebecca said...

I absolutely LOVE your blog!! It's very interesting to read!

Oz said...

Personalized marketing works miracles. Its not about if you can afford it now, its about building relationships. When you have the money and need a dress they will be there for you :) Good post.