It’s not impeccably refined tastes, but psychological and social needs that are driving the sale of fruit costing thousands of dollars.
Luxury fruits from Japan are growing in popularity, shipped in by retailers like Isetan. Grapes that cost S$199 a bunch, or mangoes that are S$3,350 per pair, are now actual things that have appeared in our supermarkets. No matter how crazy you think that is, these items are selling. And there’s an interesting lesson there, about our spending habits.
Who Would Pay S$750 for an Apple?
It’s an intriguing question, and astute readers will spot it’s about more than just fruits. Whatever makes someone pay S$750 for an apple is the same factor that would make people pay S$15,000 for a handbag, or S$2,000 for a haircut (yes, that exists in Singapore).
There have been studies into the psychology of luxury goods, and they teach us some valuable lessons; even when it comes to how we buy regular things.
An Expensive Gift is Often About Buying Social Acceptance
Luxury fruits originated in Japan, where fruits are common gifts. In Japan, you want to mark special occasions – or gifts to VIPs (e.g. your CEO) – with more than just the average watermelon or pear. This was one of several reasons for which the luxury goods market developed.
By offering someone a S$190 melon, you’re really purchasing “face”, or cultural capital. This was long ago recognised on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – we all need some degree of social acceptance for our mental health (no one enjoys being a social outcast, or on the bottom rung of society). Purchasing luxury goods, specifically for others, is a signifier of this.
It not only says that you value them, it’s a subtle way of pointing out that “I can afford this”.
But note that this only works when the luxury item is a gift. Buying S$199 grapes and eating them yourself will probably have the opposite effect – you’d be seen as decadent, wasteful, or even egoistic. Be honest now: how many of you are already judging the people who’d buy these fruits for themselves?
This trait explains why even poor relatives strive to buy expensive gifts on Christmas, or to give big ang-paos at Chinese New Year. You may be the recipient, but what they’re really buying is dignity and self-esteem for themselves (and that should tell you the best way to pay them back: by giving lots of it).
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Doesn’t Always Apply
According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we always spend on essentials first, before moving up to luxuries. And yet, due to the volume of luxury fruits being sold (the market was growing by three to five per cent per annum as of 2015), it doesn’t seem to be restricted to multi-millionaires/billionaires.
Some of the buyers aren’t particularly rich. They may even be pushing the limits of affordability, to buy the fruits as expensive gifts or to feel accomplished (we’ll explain more later).
This defies the traditional concept of the reasonable buyer, who will spend the bulk of their money on basics like food or the mortgage first. For some buyers, the emotional and psychological “kick” of social acceptance may be more important than even food. Some people may be happy to get into debt for a year, or skip meals for two or three months, to buy a branded good (be it a fruit or a pair of jeans).
Retailers are also aware of this. Don’t think that their marketing only targets the rich, because of the price range – many retailers know that what matters isn’t how rich the demographic is, but how willing they are to spend.
We Buy Luxury Goods for Ourselves as Tokens
What about when we do buy luxury goods for ourselves? The most common, wrongly given reason is social acceptance. As we’ve shown in point 1, we can gain social acceptance by giving luxury goods as gifts, but not so much by using them ourselves (it’s perceived as vain).
Besides, if the idea is to just fool someone into thinking we’re rich, we’d be happy to buy a fake version.
The reason we go out and spend on luxury goods – and sometimes never tell anyone, such as by eating these fruits secretly on our own – is often to have a sense of achievement. What we’re buying is a token; a sign that we can afford that particular luxury.
Some people need to have a pricey bag, that they keep in the closet and never use. Others need to blow a month’s income on a mango. We all have our own tokens.
Buying Luxury Goods as Homage to Our Passions
Not everyone buys a Maserati or a Porsche to drive fast (in fact, many owners of such cars prefer to drive them slowly and with great care). Likewise, not everyone buys S$200 grapes just for the taste.
Many luxury fruit enthusiasts are appreciative of the growers’ art – they know how incredibly hard it is to grow grapes that form a perfect triangle when hanging down, or in which every grape meets a minimum weight. Their purchase is a form of tribute, or homage, to the industry.
The same applies to many other kinds of luxury goods. Buyers of sports cars may be enthusiasts who appreciate masterful engineering, and buyers of expensive clothes may be passionate about the fashion industry and its masters.
It’s not uncommon for us to buy “uselessly high quality” items, which we’ll never use, or will only use once.
But it’s Not Silly, So Long as it’s Not an Addiction
Eating a S$5,000 fruit platter is not going to bankrupt you for life… if you do it once every couple of years. Likewise, buying a S$15,000 bag doesn’t mean you’ve thrown all financial prudence out the window.
It’s necessary to our mental health (and social needs) to do this kind of thing, from time to time. So go ahead and indulge on occasion. Just make sure you stay sensible, and don’t get into debt.
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By Ryan Ong
Ryan has been writing about finance for the last 10 years. He also has his fingers in a lot of other pies, having written for publications such as Men’s Health, Her World, Esquire, and Yahoo! Finance.