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JOEL Joel's Blog

The $149.00 $20.00 Wallet


The $149.00 $20.00 Wallet 4About 15 years ago I walked into Coach to buy a wallet. It was expensive, $70.00, but it was well made, and, an important selling point, it was made in New York. When the wallet finally wore out this year, I went back to Coach and a salesman showed me a $149.00 wallet that I didn't buy. It wasn't that I think I don't deserve a $149.00 wallet, it's just that it was made in China and nothing special. The reason for the change is that Coach, along with hundreds of other boutique manufacturers, was bought by investors who put a Coach store in as many higher end malls as they could find. Nothing wrong with that except in the process Coach went from being a boutique, high end manufacturer, with a exclusive brand, to an essentially mass market distributor that is only differentiated by the label. Their wallets might be much more expensive than a low end brandless wallet but they aren't substantially different. In the US over the past 20 years many exclusive brands names are no longer exclusive and are just trading on their old reputation.

What does this have to do with woodworking?


In the old days (25 years ago) if you wanted boutique, expensive, high end merchandise you had to go to a big city like New York or London, or Paris. Then exclusive brands became available everywhere, and they were no longer so exclusive. Now thanks to the Internet if you want something exclusive you can buy it direct from the maker, who can live anywhere. This is the premise of websites such as Lots of other small makers sell direct from their own personal websites. The mass marketing of formally exclusive brands has created a vacuum for new exclusive brands.
On the furniture side of things where thirty years ago there was a thriving industry of US made furniture that was sold as a once-in-a-lifetime purchase today mass market furniture is marketed by IKEA and it's competitors to be disposable.

The issue in fine furniture making on the professional level has never been about making the furniture. It's been about finding customers. There is opportunity here. I'm just not sure what it is. I do know that in my industry - woodworking tools, there are dozens of new, small hand tool companies earning a living and making a profit because the Internet is making it possible for the toolmaker to sell worldwide. For the high end seller marketing via Google adwords is usually a waste but with the Internet relentless self-promotion has never been easier. For the first time the thousands of rich people who CAN afford bespoke furniture can find you on the web, if not directly then through their decorators who are always looking for the NBT (Next Big Thing). All of these people are looking for interesting, well made furniture, that has a compelling story of craft behind it, and isn't something you can buy at the nearby luxury mall.
The trick is figuring out how to reach these potential customers them and that takes some imaginative thinking. Any thoughts?

PS - my wife bought me a perfectly good wallet on sale for about 20 bucks. Case closed!!
Join the conversation
09/14/2010 jim
I bought a wallet at Silver Dollar City about 12 years ago. The wallet cost about $25.00 and was made by the woman I bought it from and she stamped my intials on it. It has some wear on it but I bet it is good for another 5 years.
09/14/2010 PhilM
How much of that $70 you paid for the wallet was for the label? As with everything else, the best value for money is somewhere in between the ultra-cheap and super-expensive.

Just a thought. I have never paid more than $20 for my wallets and they were every bit as good as the more expensive designer labels.
My original wallet was made in NYC, by skilled labor, mostly by hand. Labor costs were high. Volume was low. Coach was legendary in those days for their quality. How much was skilled labor in the early 1990? In new York, easily $30.00/ hour probably more. Did my wallet take total 1/2 hour or more to make - easily. So labor costs would be about $15.00 plus burden. When you add in the costs of retail markup etc, not much is left. So how much of the $70.00 was the brand, my guess is very little.

On the new $149.00 brand and advertising form most of the cost.
09/14/2010 Floss
The last Coach wallet I bought was made in Spain($140).

The previous one I had for 14 years was made in NYC($75).

Needless to say the one I have now is falling apart after 3 years.

I bought the new one because of the good service the old one provided.

I am sorry they don't make them like they used to.

09/14/2010 Matthew Platt

I couldn't agree more about trading second rate goods on the back of an established brand, it's a symptom of the times I'm afraid. I believe that the ability of retailers to differentiate between money makers who happen to make tools and toolmakers who happen to make money is where the future is at - who am I kidding, you wrote the book on that one.


09/14/2010 Anthony
I always find your blog posts interesting, but this story about Coach really depresses me. I'm an architect, and about 10 years ago I did some freelance drafting for a friend who did a lot of work for Coach (corporate and probably production shop stuff). I always thought it was fascinating that they were actually still doing manufacturing in Manhattan! You're right, the quality was legendary.

Fast forward to today, and I'm happy there are toolmakers like you out there doing what you do. I'll continue to follow you guys, and hopefully buy some tools from you some day.

09/15/2010 Sam
"There is opportunity here."

I truly believe you're right. I too don't quite know where it is yet either, but I hope that it resides in a sustainability approach. Making goods with the intent that they'll end up in the trash to be replaced is not only wasting money, but unsustainable in the long run as it essentially wastes resources.

As being environmentally responsible is becoming more of the norm (trendy even!), I believe the trick will be educating the rich folks (and the working folks that decorate their houses) that well made custom furniture is leading edge! By buying a product that is made to last through the ages It'll give those wealthy folks a chance to say, "look at me, the stuff I've bought is worth more because it's rare in this world to get something that lasts."

We need to convince those folks with cash of the following equation: Trendy = Sustainable = Custom Well Made Furniture. Which is true.

So you'd better be making a pretty awesome product too. Charging more for something that's no better than what's mass produced will hurt everyone trying to make a buck at custom furniture. If you're doing that, you deserve to kick yourself in the junk.

Rant over.
09/15/2010 Tico Vogt
I have always tried to promote the environmental and sustainable aspects of my (mostly higher end)furniture and cabinet making to clients and potential customers, talking "green" since the eighties. Using locally sawn wood and designing to use less plywood, green finishes, etc. For the most part, there has been little traction around it.

Things are changing a bit. Last year I worked on stuff for a very large new house that opted for green certification, designed by a so-called green architect. At the end of the project I felt that quality and real ecology were not the deep interests at stake. The house was way too big, regardless of how many green products went into it, and it was mostly about bragging about a label. Hard not to feel cynical, but I guess that's the way of the world.
09/15/2010 Brian Meeks
I am new to woodworking and have been blogging about my adventures in learning since Jan 2, 2010. It has been a wonderful experience and I never thought about making stuff that I might sell. I was just too concerned with drilling a straight hole, or making a reasonable cut, to think I could produce a product people would buy.

Recently though, I had been making and blogging about making a set of tiny boxes. It was a challenge for me, but some of my readers expressed an interest in them. I set up an Etsy store and have had 3 sales since Sept 1.

It has changed my perspective on what is possible. I think your post did a great job of showing the value of the internet to market.


09/16/2010 Liz
I have two Coach handbags from the old days. Though they look used, they still have plenty of life in them, and I've been using only those bags for the past 20 years. Now, I look in the Coach store in my local mall and see only junk.

They aren't the only store that has morphed downhill. Eddie Bauer used to sell high quality outdoor clothing (Eddie invented the down jacket), and as a New Yorker, Joel, you know what Abercrombie & Fitch used to be.

I'm very glad that woodworking tools are going against this trend, though I'd love to see an acceptable quality of mid-grade tools. Right now, we can choose between expensive high quality and cheap junk, and as a novice woodworker, I can't justify the former but refuse to buy the latter.
09/16/2010 Mark
The initial IKEA business model was pretty interesting. The well made, once in a lifetime purchased furniture was typically inherited by your offspring when you passed away. The problem was that due to medical advances, the parents were living longer, and that left the kiddos with no furniture when they wanted to move out/start their own family. So IKEA came in with the idea of making temporary stuff that would last until you inherited the good stuff from your parents.

Nowadays I don't really think that is still the business model, but it was in interesting niche to fill.
09/16/2010 RonnieC
Someone mentioned Abercrombie- I laugh when I see all the kids wearing their A&F garb - I always wonder how long they would have stayed in the store looking at flannel shirts and fly rods!
09/20/2010 Andrew Gibson
I bought my current wallet at the rattle snake festival in San Antonio Florida. I believe I bought it 5 years ago it should have a good 8-10 years left in it. I bought one for my dad at the same time. They were 2 for $20.
09/21/2010 Rich B
Just the mention of the "real" Abercrombie and Fitch brings back some memories.

Many were the days I spent my lunch break in the Madison Avenue store. I bought very little there (I simply couldn't afford to) but just handling a fine fly rod or trying on a beautifully made jacket made me feel like I had a million bucks in my pocket.

As a newcomer to wood carving, I am delighted to find a shop like yours in my home town. It seems that every purveyor of fine tools was located in the midwest.
Hey man.

I don't buy anything made in China- it's a turn off. Not plywood, not tools, not even sandpaper. I've been through the wringer and have found that you invariably get exactly what you pay for. That is why I come and see you, Joel, for the finest handcrafted tools, made with heart- right here in NYC. I'll be by on friday to pick up the next order.
09/29/2010 Joel Goodman
Try T. Anthony in Manhattan. I wanted an old fashioned key case (like my dad carried) as the keys were digging holes in my pocket. My wife found an Italian one there. Store has been there forever -- I bought a suitcase there 20 years ago -- very old school.

10/20/2010 avi
this is wonderfully said. avoid the race to the bottom. you're selling much more than a product. i wish i had the money to afford it!
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