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Online (Mind)Gaming

In May, Christina Passariello reported in the Wall Street Journal that luxury brands were (cautiously) risking their cultivated airs of exclusivity and experimenting with direct online sales.  In today's WSJ, she once again announces this trend, complete with a repeat reference to counterfeits as one of the driving forces behind it:

The Internet's reputation as a host for discount shopping and bargain-basement deals, epitomized by retailers like eBay and Amazon, has until now been a turn off for luxury-goods players.  Brands have largely focused instead on developing their roadside store networks, where they say they can better control their image.

But the absence of real luxury players online created a void that counterfeiters have filled.  Experts say that by opening a certified store online, fashion houses can help combat that troubling phenomenon.  For instance, Hermes's site warns consumers that other sites might be passing off fake or damaged goods.

As long as we're recycling vintage commentary, Counterfeit Chic's response the first time was essentially that while some customers want fakes priced at next-to-nothing, others may be willing to pay for authenticity, quality, and condition. 

There's another point to be made, though.  While today's article emphasizes that the online likes of Bottega Veneta and Gucci won't be emulating plebian tactics like pre-holiday deals or post-Christmas price-slashing, the decision to allow shoppers in Peoria or Timbuktu direct access to luxury goods might address another populist issue. 

Fashion houses spend large amounts of money advertising products through mass-market venues -- ads in Vogue, Elle, or Harper's Bazaar, for example.  Not only is the average reader unable to afford these goods, at least not on a regular basis, but unless she happens to live in a large, urban area or ponies up the price of a plane ticket, she might never even be offered the opportunity to buy them.  And if she does manage to visit an elegant jewel box of a boutique in one of the globe's high-rent districts, it's unlikely that the hot item she covets will actually be available. 

Luxury brands have for years followed the strategy of creating artificial scarcity and thus unrequited desire in consumers, and then channeling it into more accessible lifestyle goods available at a local department store.  $80 perfume, say, rather than an $1800 handbag.  Consumers are nevertheless to some degree left with induced but unsatisfied demand for the latest "it" bag, gown, or watch photographed along with Kate, Uma, or [insert celebrity here].  In an era when we consider ourselves to be on a first-name basis with not only glittering models and actresses but also world-famous cobblers and tailors, this standoffishness is bound to generate some resentment toward brands that seduce but fail to deliver.  Hence one frequently observed phenomenon among consumers who buy counterfeits:  desire for the design, but resentment of the brand. 

If at least some high-end luxury goods are no more than a click away, however, some of that consumer resentment may be dissipated.  True, brands will have to negotiate a delicate balance between availability and exclusivity in order to maintain their luxury status.  But even the appearance of access may (despite accompanying sticker shock) mask the unpleasant odor of elitism. 

In other words, combatting counterfeiting isn't just about law enforcement.  It's about consumer psychology -- and what better place to begin than when we're already at home on our couches?