So, fate brought me back to Jakarta last week.  Yeah, fate, business, whatever.  The important thing is, by 9 AM on Sunday morning, I’ve already landed in the capital city, breathing the fresh air of consumerism.  Lunch at Chopstix, book hunting at Kinokuniya EX, dinner at Chatterbox to finally attempting the so called midnight shopping spree at Debenhams Senayan City If you’re planning to do so, let me tell you something.  Yes, the offer is abso-fashion-lutely tempting – where else would you find a couple of Matthew Williamson blouse for under 500 – but once you look at the loooooooooooooong – I don’t think I inserted enough O’s there – queueing line, you are so gonna give up.  Anyway, it is kinda an irony to see that in one corner of the city, people are queueing for kerosene while in another corner, a group of hedonistic society was actually lining up for the Debenhams buy-one-get-one offer.

Anyway, as I was enjoying a piece of heavenly dark chocolate brownies at Secret Recipe, a quote on one of the wall at the mall caught my attention.  “Whoever said that money can’t buy happiness, simply didn’t know where to go shopping – Bo Derek.”  Never thought I would say this before, but she’s absolutely genius.  Don’t tell me you haven’t had a day where all the stress that you got at work completely vanished once you’re walking around the mall with the blue paper bags from Zara at one hand and a couple of huge shopping bags from Sogo at the other hand, maybe a little box of cakes and other delicacies from Starbucks in between.  While it is chic jeans or pretty blouse or sexy clutch that does it for us girls, it might be stylish ties, designer t-shirts, or even car accessories for you guys.  This splurging habit has become a society thing, not just a girl thing.

I can’t really answer for sure if you asked me when exactly shopping becomes both a culture and a necessity for the urban society.  Is it the gratification of consumerism itself – some might say that we’re as customers are actually being capitalized by the consumer industry – or is it the reshaping of human hierarchy of needs, we can’t really draw a line of definite explanation.  But we do live in a world where society identifies its members from the products or services they consume, as some brands serve as status-enhancer and class identity.  It’s the world of Dean and Deluca, BMW, Stuart Weitzmann, and Panerai.  I’ve read the argument that relationships with a product or brand name are substitutes for healthy human relationships lacking in dysfunctional modern societies.  I wouldn’t call our society dysfunctional, but I guess we are really experiencing a great deal of orientation in valuing human nature.  We – allow me to generalize – are continuously included in a grading system that depict – genuinely or not – the value of our existence: the gap between A-average and C-average student in college and the gap between a Starbucks-coffee-cup-holding yuppy and homemade-brewed-coffee-mug-holding average Joe.  As we were divided into classes between the smarts, the average, and the intellectually challenged in college, we then continue to be classified and divided throughout the rest of our lives, and now it’s by possession and lifestyle.  We would not have such thing as the advertising industry if it weren’t for consumerism gratification, would we?

It’s sad, really, to see that we have actually fallen into this kind of society hegemony, in which you buy things not because you need them, but because they identify who you are.  Don’t get me wrong, I still believe in style and fashion and hedonistic self-indulgence, but now I see it in a different way: do and buy things because they make you happy, not because they make people happy to see you.  Buy Manolo if it makes you feel great, but never ever buy them just to make people say: I like you because you like Manolo.  Are we really hollow and lacking of self-quality and personality that we need Manolo and Weitzmann to spell it for us?  After all, when you’re dead, your tombstone will not read: Carrie, the Manolo lover, but it will read: Carrie, the loving friend and extraordinary woman.

So in the spirit of holiday and lots of bonuses, I just would like to say: go buy, buy as many things as you want, but buy them because you like them, because you like to see yourselves in them, not to please others.  And certainly, not to identify your very own existence with the brands.

No, I’m not suffering from hypothermia when I write this … but maybe I just bumped my head with something 😉

 

Apparently, really really bad.

Believe it or not, my first encounter with a computer when I was a kid was with a Mac a zillion years ago, and been using it all those years until I started working (none of my previous and current companies were using Mac, so I was forced to learn Windows and get used to it).  Due to my constant burst of ideas wherever I am and the needs to jot them down immediately, I decided to bring home a Hewlett-Packard iPaq 4350, which I really really loved for its built-in keyboard that was so easy to use and even lit in the dark.

But despite my daily affair with Windows, Mac is a long lost love that I never stop loving.  Remember the saying first love dies hard?  Well this one doesn’t even die at all.  The iPaq was pretty much limited when it comes to organizing music, so I got an iPod Nano a year ago (my next encounter with Mac after so long!), one brilliant music player that is so tiny and so simple I could stick in my pocket and listen to my choice of music all day (the 2 GB was more than enough to accomodate every single album of John Mayer, Jamie Cullum, Sting, and Seal).

Then at one foolish incident (I kept my iPaq in my handbag and evidently my contact lens cleaning solution leaked from the bottle and ruined the LCD of the PDA, damn!) I had to let go of the iPaq (the cost to fix it was almost two-third of the price itself), and I lost my ultimate, mobile media of writing!  It’s about time I move on to laptop anyway, right?

I had been using IBM Thinkpad and HP Compaq for a while (one is the property of my company, the other one was borrowed from a friend), mainly to work and to write, until a few months ago when I decided to rekindle that first love by purchasing a gorgeous white Macbook.  It’s so quick, so user-friendly, so graphically beautiful, and so compatible with Microsoft Office, I even stop using the PC at the office and choose to bring my Macbook to work!

I frequently travel for work and I don’t really enjoy all those hours spent on the plane or at the airport lounge or in the hotel room if I’m not doing anything specific.  And I was thinking, it would be really fun if I can watch my favorite episode of Friends or laugh my ass off to The Daily Show of Jon Stewart instead.  Can I say that Steve Jobs and my boss AM are two of my favorite people at the moment?  Jobs for inventing the it’s-so-beautiful-I-could-cry iPod Touch, and AM for giving me a nice surprise in my bank account this morning 😉

See that sleek and shiny black thing on top of my Macbook?  See how the screen adjusts its position automatically as you tilt the thing?  See how it can actually adjust the brightness of the screen to the ambience of the room?  See how it connects to any available wi-fi network in a matter of second and stores the visited pages offline?  See how the resolution of monitor is thisclose to the resolution of your plasma TV?  See how easy it is to blog using this lustrous piece of technology using its touchscreen keyboard?  See how the full widescreen presentation of video and podcast is so breathtaking?  And see how its sexy black and silver colors totally match my black Zara oversized handbag?

iPod Touch

Thank you, boss, for the best early birthday present so far 😉

 

Red Carpet Society

November 20, 2007

Just a little over a month ago, a couple of friends of mine flew over to my city on the same day, but taking different flights.  One was slouching comfortably on the couch of the executive lounge, sipping venti caramel macchiato with a copy of Jane Austen’s Persuasion on her hand, while the other was messaging me complaining about how miserable he was being on the economy AirAsia flight, waiting in the regular lounge on hard plastic chair with no Starbucks in sight whatsoever, not to mention that the flight was being delayed until further announcement.  I couldn’t help but grinning when I listened to his story, picturing his misery in my mind as he dragges his black Samsonite, running on the shiny Prada shoes looking for the best window seat on the infamous free seating system of AirAsia.

It’s only fair – and honest – to say that my friends and I, and thousands of other people for that matter, are dedicated members of the limelight generation.  I’m sure you’ve heard of the so-called baby boomers and Generation X, but exactly is limelight?  If you are between the age of twentysomething to fortysomething, young urban professionals with steady above average income, citizens of the coffee republic with at least one designer jeans in your closet, you might as well be a part of the limelight generation without even realizing it, the generation who craves VIP treatment at all times.  With the growing numbers of new money during the dotcom era and the expanding opportunities to jump ships earning more money for today’s yuppies, who can blame them – or us for that matter?  Now is the era where you don’t have to be a Kennedy or an Onassis to have red carpets rolled in front of you.

red carpet

What is amazing about this particular phenomenon is that I couldn’t quite decide which actually influences which: whether it’s the ever-accomodating consumer industry that triggers the existence of the limelight generation, or is it the other way around?  Do banks promote gold and platinum cards because more people are demanding the exclusivity and VIP treatments the cards provide, or does the existence of such cards – and witnessing previous card owner’s elevated comforts by having them – that encourage others to crave such treatment?  It’s really like trying to answer the chicken-and-egg question.

Although the sufferers of the limelight syndrome mainly center their addiction towards the beauty of the entourage they desire, I would also like to call them the Andy Warhols of consumerism, shaping the very pop culture of capitalism even as they breathe.  Why do you think Bergdorf Goodman offers the service of personal buyer, Turnbull and Asser only make tailor-made suits, and Citizens of Humanity designs many range of jeans – although in limited numbers – to flatter the feminine curves of any woman?  These institutions – and many more – are actually contributing to the epidemic syndrome of limelight.  Let’s be honest, shopping at your friendly neighborhood Wal-Mart or K-Mart will not grant you a special treatment, but the case is of course 180 degrees different once you walk into Barneys or Harrod’s.  An entourage of friendly, helpful, and polite shop attendants are ready to follow your steps and accommodate your needs in the place where customers are truly kings and queens.  Yes, you heard me right.  The very heart of consumerism lies in the limelight desire itself.  Confused?  Let me put it this way: you can’t get special treatment if you don’t consume special products, mingle with special people, and live in a special kind of way.  Talk about mingling with special people, I’m sure some of you are already familiar with the story of some wannabe socialites in Jakarta who would go the extra mile to get invited to the most happening events in town, only to spend the whole night persuading lifestyle reporters to take pictures of them, in hopes that their faces will be featured next to the cream of the crops on the society pages of Harper’s Baazar and Indonesian Tattler.  I forgot who told me this, but Louis Vuitton actually sent a letter of protest to the magazine because one of these wannabe socialites was actually wearing a fake Louis Vuitton handbag.  Talk about public humiliation.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today.  I’m being nice when I say that the wannabes 15 minutes of fame is up.  I want to talk about the limelight generation who’s really the 20 in the 80/20 Pareto principle: the 20% of society who truly controls the trends, branding, and the whole culture of consumerism for 80% of the society.  The question is, of course, how do they decide which one is trendy and which one is not?  Why Michael Kors, Matthew Williamson, and Stella McCartney are so hip while Miu Miu and Betsey Johnson are so yesterday?  Surprisingly, there’s really no answer to this question.  To those who live the trend, they really do not think of it as the trend, they just regard it as something that makes them feel unique, individual, and different.  To the limelight generation, what we call trend is really just their raison d’être – the reason of their existence.  They just wake up one morning, put on a pair of True Religion jeans, topped with Michael Kors motorcycle jacket and a pair of Jimmy Choos because that’s the style that accentuate their very existence.  If you’re familiar with Maslow’s theory of needs, this limelight generation shops for clothes and other necessities not to fulfil their primary, secondary, and tertiary needs, but really to define who they are.  Why else would they crave a Balducci sandwich for lunch and a Cristal champagne for dinner?  These new essentialist shoppers redefine consumerism as a form of self-actualization.  Without realizing it, they also define the trends to the other 80 percent of the society.  Can you imagine the circle of influence that these limelights have?  In one way or the other, the consumer industry itself has to watch out for the limelights movement because their consumption habits reflect the choices that 80 percent of the population might make.

In the end, the question that you should ask yourself would be: do I want to be a fashion victim, or do I want to be the one who defines fashion and style?  The truth is, there’s only a thin line that separates the limelights with the followers, a line that you can only cross if you can self-actualize yourself like any red carpet society would.  

Conforming Sexuality

November 12, 2007

When we went to the bookstore to pick up Gong Xi Fa Cai cards for our prime customers last month, my friend Fenny also picked up a book entitled Luna by Julie Ann Peters.  The thing that got us interested first was that it said on the cover: Winner of the 2005 Young Adult Literature Award.  So we thought, hey, this should be something different.   I went home that night with Luna, while Fenny ended up borrowing my Cewek Matre novel by Alberthiene Endah.  There’s actually a funny story about this book.  When my mom saw me reading Cewek Matre at home, she grinned and teased me, “Wow, you’re reading your own biography?”  Haha, funny!  Well, anyway, guys who are reading this, I’m not as bad as the characters in that book, materializing their female assets to acquire another asset like a Celine bag or a pair of Jimmy Choos, wait, why am I explaining this?  Sorry again guys, I’ve been taking a handful of flu medicines today so I’m still in a groggy state, a little bit dumber and disoriented than usual.  

So back to our main point.  I laid in bed, turned on the Eric Benet CD, and started reading Luna.  In the first chapter, the girl was annoyed that her sibling kept coming into her room in the middle of the night, to try on clothes or experimenting with make up and stuff that she can’t sleep.  But she had to be patient because the sibling was her brother, Liam, who preferred to be called Luna, referring to someone who could only be seen under the moonlight, for he had to live the day as a man, a normal high schooler.

Luna is by far one of the most brilliant books I’ve ever read.  Honestly at first I thought it was just another chicklit or teenage novel, but Luna managed to come forth as a something that I would like to call as an adult psychological fiction.  It describes vividly what someone who was born as a man but felt like a woman within – someone they refer to as a transgender – was going through everyday.  Living as a person with a hidden identity.  Faking his every action, move, feeling, and behavior just to look normal under society’s perception. 

While Liam a.k.a. Luna is an extreme case, where he really desired to surgically change his gender to be a complete woman, I’m sure some of you have experienced a sexuality discomfort at some point or some degree, asking why men should do some things and why women shouldn’t do some things.  I, honestly, only learned how to enjoy being a woman just lately.  Although never questioning my sexuality, I used to hate all the things that women do because I thought they’re just pain in the ass, from waxing, regular spa and hair treatment, stilettos, ten steps of face treatment, manicures and pedicures, short skirts and stockings, mascara, fake eye lashes, the torture device called eyelash curlers, the whole thing!  I grew up very tomboyish, enjoying running around with the boys, climbing trees, and playing soldiers rather than dressing up the Barbies or playing house.  My favorite toy was a remote control car instead of the Malibu Barbie.  While the girls in my class were playing cooking, I chose to hit balls with the boys (one day I was even taken to the emergency room when the bat accidentally flew to my head and cut open just a little bit under my right eye.  Thank God it didn’t take away my sight, and the miraculous modern medicine had erased the scar, but I did have to spend a month going back and forth to the doctor).

salon

 All throughout junior high and high school, I kept many guy friends and just a few girl friends.  My look was pretty much casual and very American: jeans, T-shirt or khakis, and a pair of sneakers, from Skechers, Vans, to Guess, I was addicted to them.  While girls around me were dressing up in camisoles and high heels, I felt very comfortable shopping at PIM wearing a pair of jeans boardshorts, T-shirts, and my Skechers.  As I started university, although liberated from the dreaded school uniform, I couldn’t really wear shorts to class.  So I kept my jeans and was in love with the Doc Martens.  My hair had always been really short since kindergarten, but as I was nearing graduation and started teaching, I decided to grow it longer.

Skirts, however, were still out of the question, as I could never sit that gracefully.  Until I started working in a bank where skirts were mandatory and make up was essential.  I’m telling you, on the image class, Chitra Triadi was having a hard time teaching me to stand and walk like a woman (come on, give me a break, do you think walking straight on those high heels is easy?).  Then I joined the Fun Fearless Female thing, which was a huge shock to many of my high school friends (some messaged me and said: oh my God, you are that girly now?  Or: What demon possessed your body?).  That was actually my first time strutting with a 7 cm stilettos, what a torture!!  Men don’t have to suffer that much to look sexy, they just need to put on a pair of Michael Kors pinstripe suit and it’s done!  I felt like walking on thin ice, about to fall down and embarrassed myself any moment, but hey, I survived!! 

Getting dressed, having your hair and make up done, are very dreading and tiring (I miss the days when I was still just a wash-up-and-go girl), and I hated them.  Why does it have to be so complicated for woman to be physically accepted in the so-called metropolitan world?  Men do not have to endure that.  Men do not have to spend hundreds of dollars on a bag of make up and skin care products.  And while wrinkles add wisdom, character, and sexiness to a man’s look, they’re every woman’s worst nightmare.  The consumer industry is built entirely on woman’s market, from lotion to Botox, jeans to hip huggers, skin whitening to facial and liftups, and even technology is now hugging their female customers tightly: pink Dopod, shocking pink Moto (even its ad campaign is aimed directly to women, showing a fashionable model who can fit the sleek Moto on the back pocket of her extra-tight low rise jeans), to chic Nokia with shiny casing where you can check your lipstick.

Life is so easy for men, not just because they only have to put on designer jeans and shirt to look extremely handsome without hours of fixing their hair and painting their face, but also because they don’t have to endure the grueling hours of delivering a baby, the pain of losing virginity, and the struggle to keep our beauty. 

I complained a lot about how complicated and expensive it is to be a woman, but as I get in touch more with my feminine side and throw away the tomboy side, I’m actually starting to enjoy it.  My first time at the spa felt like heaven (I’m now totally addicted because it’s worthed every penny!), my weekly visit to the hairdresser didn’t feel like hell anymore (spending hours of treatment there is totally rewarding when I see the result), and I’m not dreading anymore on the God-knows-how-many steps of skincare I have to do before I sleep.  I still think that stilettos are murder weapons for a girl’s feet, but now I wear them with a smile.  The only thing that I haven’t made peace with yet is the eyelash curler, it’s gonna take a little while longer until I don’t feel like my eyeballs are gonna fall off everytime I use it.

Beauty is painful, but I guess we’re all masochistic as we keep on coming back to the pain to be more and more beautiful.  And I think I need to warn any tomboyish women out there who are thinking of becoming more feminine: there’s no turning back, it’s all up hill from here.  I am yet to find out how much I can endure the pain of losing virginity and giving birth, but I can proudly say that I love being a woman, no matter how complicated, expensive, and painful it is.

What’s in the Bag

November 7, 2007

whatsinthebag

My friends, Rina and Rini (sounds like twins but not hehe), and I now have a new hobby to do at the office (if my boss is reading this, don’t worry boss, we only do this late in the afternoon when there’s nothing more to do work-wise … yeah, right!). It’s really the best thing to do while waiting for ‘buka puasa.’ What is it? Checking out the ever-so-cool-never-know-how-we-could-live-before-this The Bag Blog! It’s full of daily postings of what’s fab and what’s dab, what’s hot and what’s not on today’s trends in bags.  Need mention the 2 million dollars worth of Hermes bag collection by Victoria Beckham?  The matching white Valentino breaded leather of Angelina Jolie and Princess Zahara Jolie-Pit?  Or the beautifully crafted 2000 bucks ostrich Bottega?  Abso-fashion-lutely not healthy on our back account in this THR season where the splurging desire is almost unbearable.  Every click brings me closer to the end of my financial civilization as we know it hahaha.

 Anyway, our favorite part of The Bag Blog is this section called What’s in the Bag, where anyone can send pictures of their favorite bag with comments on why they like it and what they usually have in it.  And when I say anyone, it’s really anyone, from glorified fashionista like Kim Kardashian and Ivanka Trump to college students carrying Banana Republic.  People say that there’s a lot that you can tell about a person from what they have inside their handbag (Gore Vidal’s book inside Ivanka’s purple hobo or Shakespeare for Dummies inside a college freshman’s L.L Bean).  Never really thought about what’s inside my bag until I saw this blog, but in case you’re interested, here’s what I have inside my latest fashion find, a gorgeous black oversize hobo bag from Zara (I can be stranded anywhere and still survive on all the things I have in it.  It’s so oversize I can even fit my MacBook in it!).

        Prescription medicines a.k.a second life

        GSM and CDMA mobile phones and the respective charger (going out without these are just like going out naked!)

        A Hewlett-Packard PDA (where I keep all of my contacts and calendar events, would be lost without it!  Plus, I can go online from whenever I like as long as there is a wifi access)

        Dark brown leather Renoma wallet with bare necessities like credit cards, debit/ATM cards, ID card, and small amount of cash

        iPod and the JBL headphones, I changed the original iPod headphones with these because they just sound heavenly better (really great for killing boredom anywhere, and also to avoid having lengthy conversations with people who you don’t really want to talk to, like over-pushing shopkeepers).

        A small silver box of name cards (you never know when you’re gonna run into prospective clients, always think like a business banker hahaha)

        Passport (so if I need to run away to another country like Jason Bourne, I can just do it instantly from anywhere at anytime, not like I need to hehe)

        Pen (to write, to sign, to draw, to sketch, or to poke into the eyes of tukang jambret on self-defense … serem kali ya?)

        Basic make-up: tiny hairbrush, a Laneige sliding pact, Laneige emulsion and skin refiner in travel size bottle, and an Anna Sui nude lipstick

        Evian brumisateur a.k.a water spray, great to refresh my face after a long, hot day visiting my client’s plantation or factory.

        And last but not least, you see that yellow-black book? Yes, it’s my book!  Why do I need to carry my debut published novel anywhere?  To promote it whenever I have the chance 😉

I currently have two obsessions (or passions?) in life: Anya Hindmarch and 5 o’clock shadow.  And strangely, they’re very agreeable with each other.   Or is it just me?   Oh well, I’m gonna share with you a little bit about those two. 

Anya Hindmarch, for those of you who haven’t heard about her yet, is a rising British fashion designer, famous for her mainline of woven bag.  But it was actually her “be a bag” that took her to the mainstream.  “Be a bag” right now is absolutely the most wanted item by women – and even men – everywhere, making Anya Hindmarch a household name in the bag industry.  What is so addicting about this one-of-a-kind fashion item?  “Be a bag” was born in 2001 as a charity promotion where more than a hundred of fashion icons – from models, actors, artists, and pop stars – participated in.  The concept was pretty original and hip: each one of them supplied a memorable personal photograph, which then was transposed onto one of Anya Hindmarch’s stylish bags … or in short: let yourself be a bag.  It can be a picture of you and your best friend (like what Sadie Frost and Kate Moss have), an image of your childhood (Liam Neeson chose this kind), or just a picture of yourself (Pierce Brosnan used a cropped image of his eyes). 

Although started as just a 3-month charity event, “be a bag” became an immediate hit, and soon after became available publicly.  For the last two years, the number of Anya’s clientele has grown dramatically, ranging from fashionista, socialite, celebrities, to anyone who just loves the idea of carrying their treasured moment around, as the bag is always so gorgeous, so unique, and so fun!  Winky’s wife Kenes chose to put Winky’s cute kiddy picture on her Anya’s, while my friend Maya said enthusiastically: “Eh lo liat ntar gw pake Anya gw yang fotonya gw ma laki gw, pasti lo ngiri abis,” to which I replied: “Ah, kalo ma laki lo sih gw gak ngiri, kalo ma Brad Pitt baru gw ngiri hahaha.”

Call me a fashion victim or shopping addict, I think Anya’s bag is definitely a must-have item this year.  It’s not only great to carry around while you’re doing your regular weekend mall-hopping in your FCUK hiphuggers and chic blouse (and if you choose the nappy bag style, it fits anything from your purse, mobile phones, to your lipstick and perfume), but it also looks great with your more sophisticated look like camisoles and tube top on your afternoon date.  I just love the idea of showing my individuality not only by way of my choice of clothing, but also by visualizing my very personal image on an Anya’s bag. 

Anyway, as I was thinking of getting an Anya for my own, I start to muse on some images I’d like to put on the bag, contemplating between a picture of me on my first birthday or a collage of photographs of me with my best friends.  And that’s when an image that I adore so much came to mind: 5 o’clock shadow (I know Fenny is screaming her lungs out when she read this.  Shut up, Tong!).  I bet you’re wondering right now what or who is exactly this 5 o’clock shadow is.

5 o’clock shadow is the nickname of one of my male friends, well I guess now you must have an idea how he looks like right?  No?  Let me explain it this way.  Do you know the stubble that a man starts to grow in early morning?  It’s intimately referred to as 5 o’clock shadow, something that is actually not very common on most Asian men, but he definitely has it (and I always wish that he hasn’t been shaving when I see him hahaha).   Anyway, it’s not just his intimidatingly good looks that make me love him, but also his charming personality, and you all know I always have a soft spot for smart men.  Like rocks colliding, we did fight and argue and debate from time to time (and sometimes I just want to slap him in the face), but there’s this comforting image of him that I really like.  It’s a picture of him sleeping, 5 o’clock shadow growing, so peaceful and serene (although I fully realize that the peaceful moment was over once he’s awake and started his fussing).  Wouldn’t that be a killer image to put on an Anya’s bag?

But then I started to think, would I be tempted to rip and burn an Anya Hindmarch’s craftsmanship when I turn to hate the image so bad?  Would the bag that I usually carry with pride becomes the object of my hatred instead of my affection?  Oh, well, as I browsed through Anya’s online store, I thought: who cares?  After all, as Anya said: “I think fashion should never be taken too seriously and should always make you smile.”

 

Recovering Shopaholic

November 1, 2007

In the spirit of becoming a recovering shopaholic, I really needed to find out what drives my consumptive, materialistic, hedonistic, cosmopolitan buying habit.  Why do I – the present tense honestly indicates that these are still my preferred way of life – choose Starbucks over the so-called warung kopi?  Why do I immediately go to the Evian rack instead of the Aqua rack?  Why is the name Anya Hindmarch means so much to me but I won’t give the time of day to Sophie Martin?  If I were forced to explain my own buying habit to public, my immediate and logical – or should I say defensive – respond would be: taste is something quizzical that I can’t explain with just a few words.  It would be the same as asking a woman why she prefers wedges over pumps, or asking a man why he chooses to wear a t-shirt instead of a polo shirt.  Taste, I believe, is something to be enjoyed, not something to be explained.

But with a pure intention of finding out the naked truth behind my – and of course your – preferred lifestyle, and to give myself an edge in putting a halt to Starbucks, Zara, Miss Sixty, and Barneys which are continuously after the money in my purse, I do need an explanation behind my consumption habit.  So I went to the local bookstore, picked up The Undercover Economist by Tim Hartford, and to quote David Bodanis: “Reading this book is like spending an ordinary day wearing x-ray goggles.”  Just what I need.

Let’s say that we’re not blaming the expensive taste on the taste, but on the expensive price.  I like Starbucks because I like Starbucks, but why does a cup of cappuccino there cost a fortune while a cup of the same thing at your local warkop costs practically nothing?  If you look at the location, the common-sense answer would be because coffee bars such as Starbucks and Coffee Bean pay a significant amount of money on rents, hence hiking up the overhead costs, which of course, triggering the expensive price.  But is that really all there is to it?  Our dear friend Tim Hartford showed in his book that there’s more to that than just location. 

He explained bluntly through the theory of well-known economist David Ricardo.  In his story, Ricardo illustrated that there are two things which determine the rent of prime locations like meadowlands (or in the modern world: prime locations like the central business districts, and the strategic street corners where every coffee chains are after): the difference in agricultural productivity between meadows and marginal land, and the importance of agricultural productivity.  At USD 1 a bushel, five bushels of grain is USD 5 rent.  But at USD 200,000 a bushel, five bushels of grain is a USD 1 million rent.  Meadows command high rents only if the grain they help produce is also valuable.

Let me turn the time machine back to our world now.  If we blame the high price of branded coffee on rents, we should also take note that prime coffee bar locations will command high rents only if customers – that’s us – will pay high prices for coffee.  Rush hour customers, caffeine-bound yuppies, and just anyone with the given lifestyle are really so desperate for coffee that they literally become price-blind, or as Tim put it: “The willingness to pay top whack for convenient coffee sets the high rent, and not the other way around.”

Mmm, I stopped for a minute when I reach that page.  Does Zara really apply USD 30 on a piece of white t-shirts because we’re willing to pay for that?  And does Miss Sixty get away with price-tagging USD 100 on a pair of jeans because we don’t object and keep on buying?  Thus, another question is arising: why don’t we object?  Why are we willing to pay for it, despite our endless complaints of calling it “ridiculously expensive?” 

The answer is, as simply as, scarcity power.  Tim said: “If there’s a profitable deal to be done between somebody who has something unique and someone who has something which can be replaced, then the profits will go to the owner of the unique resource.”  This is how the relationship between scarcity and bargaining strength works.  Let’s say that you work in the central business district in Jakarta.  To make your life more practical, of course, you would want to live around the area, thus saving a lot of time on your trips to and from work every day.  The main problem is, there are only so few apartments in this prime locations, but there are so many people wanting them, making the rent price of these apartments skyrocketed, leaving most of those people – including you, maybe – disappointed.  But the last time I check, coffee is not scarce, jeans are sold everywhere, and looking for a white shirt is as easy as lifting up a finger, so why the high price? 

Allow me to replace the word coffee with Starbucks, jeans with Miss Sixty, and white shirt with Zara, and you’ll start to get a clearer picture.  There’s not many quality coffee like Starbucks, stylish jeans like Miss Sixty, and chic white shirt like Zara, thus giving them the scarcity power and high value above the others.  But then again, the wondering part of you might be dying to ask this question by now: is Starbucks really the only quality coffee in the world?  Is Miss Sixty the solitary stylish pair of jeans on the face of the planet?  The answer is of course no.  And with the existence of free trade competitions, won’t Starbucks, Miss Sixty, and Zara try to lower their price to keep customers from buying products from them instead of from their competitors?

This is where the concept of the so-called “marginal products” comes to mind.  In the eyes of die-hard, brand-minded shopaholic like me, the values of Starbucks, Miss Sixty, and Zara are way above their competitors, hence making the competitors marginal.  With the already branded state of mind that I have, these certain products will be the only ones I care about every time I’m ready to splurge some money.  The brilliant minds behind the success of these top products realize the hard fact that once they have built a strong customer base, they can get away with most any prices.  How did they do it?  How did they make me – and maybe a million other customers – don’t feel like they’re ripping us off? 

Before I answer that, allow me to present you with another question: what do Starbucks, Miss Sixty, and Zara have in common?  If you ask somebody like Nicholas Kochan, the editor of The World’s Greatest Brand, he would probably answer: they’re all heavily promoted, all owned or sold by large companies, and each has a carefully developed set of “values” which appeals to a specific audience.  They’re all powerful brands.  And all powerful brands have loyal – if not fanatic – customers who would enjoy everything that the brand has to offer at any cost.  But how do they arrive at that point?  How do they develop such a brand that has an emotional connection with its targeted customers?

The answer is, again, very simple.  Starbucks, as any other strong brands like Nike and Coca Cola, continues to spend a lot of money on maintaining brand awareness to its customers and …   Wait, what time is it?  Oh shit, I’m late to my shopping date with a friend.  I’m sorry if I seem to end this discussion abruptly, but a 20 percent discount at Zara is waiting.  Well, no matter how many economics books that I’ve read, being a recovering shopaholic is never easy 😉