When I was a small child, my dad tried to explain "market value" to me. Imagine you're selling an old bentwood rocking chair at a flea market. Two prospective buyers come along. One says "Cool rocking chair. Maybe that'd fit on my porch. I'll give you $20." The other says "My grandfather used to have a rocking chair just like that! I've always wanted one but never found one! It's perfect!" Who would pay more for the chair?
If Buyer 2 knew Buyer 1 had already offered $20, he would surely offer more! The chair might be worth $50 or $100 to him! Naturally I asked who was right. What was the actual value of the chair? And my dad said it was worth what people were willing to pay. That was the difference between market value and intrinsic value.
Well, I've always struggled with this idea. For one thing, the market is competitive, and I am not. Whether I win or lose a competition, I always lose because I feel bad. Here's a good example as it relates to purchasing: when I was traveling in Kenya, people would besiege the tour bus waving their wares (jewelry, blankets) overhead and shouting prices. "Bead necklace, Madam! Ten thousand shillings! No? For you, Madam, one thousand shillings! Okay!" My fellow travelers got into the spirit of things, shouting out low-ball offers and playing the game. But I could not. If the sellers could vary so widely in what they charged, then what was the necklace actually worth? If I paid more than it was worth, was I being cheated? If I paid less--and I feared they might sell it for less just to make a sale--was I cheating them? And it was even more stressful when I considered the relative value of American dollars to Kenyan shillings. We could be dickering over fractions of a cent! I could be the ugly American gypping them out of their pennies! How could I ever feel good about my purchase?
It happens in the US, too. At small shops or flea markets, sometimes no price is marked, because they want you to make an offer. I prefer less ambiguous shopping. I like to see the price marked, so I can silently decide if it's worth that to me. I assume the seller did the same thing when marking the price!
Clothes are an area of the market where prices vary hugely, but so does quality.
Sure, some designer stuff isn't actually amazing quality--you pay for the label. But a lot of the cheap junk must still be worth more than it sells for, surely! I couldn't make a tee shirt, even a shoddy one, for $5. The fabric alone costs more, as does my time. So when I see a tee shirt for $5, my first thought is "someone is starving for this". Because I know the only way the price is possible is if someone is underpaid.
As a custom sewist ("sewer" is what I usually say, but when I write it the spelling is ambiguous), I struggle to price my work. Am I selling a garment or my time and expertise? The pants I make will necessarily cost far more than Ready To Wear pants, because of economics of scale. Of course, RTW pants take just as much engineering and just as many trials and fittings (to a fit model) as my pants--probably more--but once that initial work is done, the commercial companies can make thousands of pants at a time, and sell them for $20 each, and more than earn back all the research and development outlay. My pants take engineering and fitting and trials, but in the end I may only sell one pair to a client, and start anew with a new client. So on a smaller scale, the price per pair goes up. Anyway, if I were to sell my custom pants at RTW prices, I'd be gypping myself and unfairly competing with other custom sewists, who would not thank me for devaluing all of our work!
GENERALISTS VERSUS SPECIALISTS
Customer demographics is another place where my mind stutters. I am a thrift-store-shopping-do-it-herself-er: naturally frugal, and reluctant to open my purse for clothes (though perfectly willing to spend hundreds of hours making them)! Since I have the bargain-hunting mindset, I blanch when quoting a price to a customer, and am usually amazed when they nod and pay me. Now, I'm certainly not complaining about being compensated fairly for my time -- I like my customers for doing so! But I do venture uneasily into pricing my services as a professional when I so rarely hire professionals myself! I have to remind myself that I am providing something people can't find at thrift stores, or even regular stores. And while my clients could do-it-themselves, they'd first have to dedicate years to studying sewing, as I am doing. They might not want to!
My friend Moire encapsulated this difference of mindset when she first saw my blog. She was excited and pleased that I was blogging, and said she looked forward to seeing a portfolio page of finished projects, but honestly couldn't care less about the sewing. "Since I value my time, I should invest it in what matters to me, and pay other people who are experts in other things to do the rest," she said; "Sewing is your thing, not mine." It's the specialist mindset. A specialist wants to get very good at one or two things, and market that excellence to those who care about it. A specialist might make beautiful furniture, but would have to call a plumber if the toilet clogged. And would see no problem in that, since time spent learning about toilets would detract from furniture-making! A generalist (as in the DIY movement) wants to do things for himself, to have a basic understanding of many things in order to be more independent: Jack of all trades, master of none, is oftentimes better than master of one!
Both sides have merit. The problem with being a specialist is that you may find the market changing and your skills no longer needed (the Downton Abbey dilemma: "Who has under-butlers anymore?"). Then your market value goes down. The problem with being a generalist is that sometimes real excellence is required or desired, and your general aptitude is not enough. Then you have to hire an expert. (It's nice to know First Aid and be able to stitch a cut, but sometimes you need a kidney surgeon!)
At any rate, I don't think it's an either-or situation. The more you specialize and become an expert on one thing, the more you develop skills and understanding of concepts that have broader application. My mom does woodworking, and when she explains her process to me, I understand it in sewing terms, since there is crossover of ideas.
I find that my customers are usually specialists in somethings else. Like Moire, they care deeply about their own areas of expertise, but don't want to waste time getting a general knowledge of things they aren't passionate about. But they value excellence, and are willing to pay me for my area of expertise, as they want to be paid for theirs. Generalists might read sewing blogs to learn how to sew for themselves, but specialists hire custom sewists.
I used to think of myself as a generalist, and I do still dabble in many things, but in recent years I've narrowed my focus to sewing and textiles, so I think I'm becoming a specialist. And as I specialize more in sewing, I become more willing to pay specialist prices in other areas, since I now understand what goes into mastering a trade!
Quilting, dressmaking, and history plied with the needle...
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