It’s not the need for speed, it’s the need for a Louis Vuitton Speedy
What would you do with 20 euros? What would you do for 20 euros?
For a college student, 20 euros means a lot of things. It means I can order food delivery, afford my shopaholic episodes, or upgrade from a basic plan to a premium one on Netflix. The point is, 20 euros has significance. 20 euros bears consequence.
So when my classmates presented the opportunity to earn 20 (up to 200) euros per purchase as a luxury personal shopper, a position that required only standing in line and purchasing scarce bags on behalf of others (and a chance for me to live my Crazy Rich Asians fantasy) I knew I had to take it. It was a seemingly more than reasonable tradeoff for queuing up outside the always-busy storefront of Louis Vuitton and getting pampered by sales associates with champagne and cookies. At the promise by the middleman that such a venture would only take up less than an hour of my time, the opportunity came out to be significantly better than my €6,30 ($7.11) hourly wage from my days as a sales associate.
In other words, we were “personal shoppers” for the creme de la creme of luxury shoppers: those who could not only afford the goods, but could pay for the additional luxury of not having to actually buy them on their own.
I was added into a buyers group chat on WeChat, where the middlemen between the personal shoppers would send out daily queries for 10 people a day to meet him at either De Bijenkorf (the Dutch equivalent of Bergdorf Goodman) or Pieter Cornelisz Hooftstraat (the Dutch equivalent of Fifth Avenue). Each person would then be given a list of bags to inquire after at different times of the day. This way, they could bypass the two bags-per-person quota and accommodate the changing delivery and stock availability of the store. In other words, we were “personal shoppers” for the creme de la creme of luxury shoppers: those who could not only afford the goods, but could pay for the additional luxury of not having to actually buy them on their own.
In a group chat of over 100 students competing for the promise of a job that would only take up thirty minutes of our time, it was tough to even send in a response before the spots filled up.
Luckily and unluckily for me, my high screen time on my phone paid off. I managed to snatch a spot on the second day of the job.
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“Louis” assured me that it would be fine, because “people can’t tell Asians apart”.
I arrived at De Bijenkorf for the first shift at 11am, meeting the middleman, whom I’ll call “Louis” for the purpose of this article. Louis was a Chinese man who looked to be in his late 20’s, sporting a sparsely grown beard and round glasses. Louis debriefed me on the overall process, running through a list of bags that are in demand at Louis Vuitton, from the Speedy to the Dauphine, each upwards of 1000 euros, dotted with the classic Louis Vuitton monogram. “Louis” asked me if I had brought my passport, I said no, it wasn’t something I carried around regularly. He proceeded to say it was not a problem, and he could send me a photo of someone else’s passport to be eligible for a tax refund. I stated my discomfort in participating in possible identity theft, but Louis assured me that it would be fine, because “people can’t tell Asians apart”. I protested again, so he backed down and said it was still possible to make the purchase without a passport, but it would be at a lower pay rate - presumably because they wouldn’t be able to count on the scammed tax refund.
I obliged, since I’d already shown up. Within the span of 10 minutes, I was sitting inside Louis Vuitton, showing the sales associate the list of bags I was looking for as I sipped on the complimentary water. She returned swiftly with the Onthego, the Boite Chapeau Souple, and the Cannes. I texted Louis to know that I was about to get the Onthego and the Cannes under the two bags per person limit.
Suddenly, Louis’ tone changed drastically from his tone in person. To my dismay, he was no longer gracious and accommodating, but became stern and uncompromising. I looked up at the sales associate and squeezed out a faint smile. When I looked back down at my phone, Louis had insisted on me using a scan of the passport he’d provided of a 33-year-old Chinese woman that looked nothing like me. He began pushing me to use the passport to purchase the bags and instructed me to lie to the sales associates that I had left my passport at home and could only use a copy from my phone. I refused and told him it was not possible to do as he instructed.
He threw his hands up and told me there was nothing he could do, and if I could not purchase the bags under his conditions, he didn’t want the bags anymore. I stared blankly at the text, unsure of what to do and what to say to the eager-eyed sales associate that has been more than kind to me throughout the entire ordeal.
Was it worth it? I thought to myself. Within seconds, the answer was evident. It was my name on the line and I was not willing to get into a run-in with the police over identity theft at Louis Vuitton for 20 euros. I mumbled out an excuse to the sales associate and left hastily, empty-handed.
I didn’t play by his rules. So I wasn’t getting a cent.
Obviously, this wasn’t a one-off scam. Luxury buyers exploit students to become luxury personal shoppers in order to bypass the challenges of obtaining luxury bags in Europe.
Luxury brands in Europe are guilty of hunger marketing, driving up the brand’s value as they drive consumers into distress over the scarcity of these products. The limited stocks of classic and renowned silhouettes at a significantly lower price (especially after a tax refund up to 15%) reel in the Chinese buyers who could not otherwise justify the full-price purchase in China.
While I felt overwhelmed by the handsome silhouettes of leather presented to me in Amsterdam, my experience in this less-popular store probably pales in comparison to the Parisian Louis Vuitton stores. In the capital of fashion, these stores boast long queues and morning sprints. When luxury buyers do not want to participate in the frenzy of scarcity purchases, and when brands like Louis Vuitton create a quota to discourage the reselling market, collectors and buyers of means turn to alternative routes to obtain the bags they want, even if it means soliciting them through the grey areas of the law.
At the end of the day, it is the shopper’s name on the line, and I wasn’t going to sacrifice mine.
By taking out the middlemen, the alternative routes of personal shopping can be lucrative, but doing so also requires the above-board actions and transparent communications between the buyer and the shopper, rather than pressuring shoppers to be dishonest in order to save money (a strange impulse of the 1%, to be sure). At the end of the day, it is the shopper’s name on the line, and I wasn’t going to sacrifice mine.
Luxury brands with high name recognition are a go-to for newcomers experiencing an explosion of new wealth. The majority of the buyers, from unfamiliar beginners to seasoned connoisseurs, come from China; luxury brands benefit from these buyers’ association of name brands as status symbols to in order to build retention and customer loyalty. Money talks, and Western luxury labels like Louis Vuitton finally have an ear pressed to the Asian market.
Having spent my teenage years in China, I was a fanatic for poorly bootlegged luxury products. It was a way for me to appreciate the aesthetics of the brand and appropriate the brand’s monograms onto articles of clothing I would actually wear. Contrary to the traditional economics of luxury, powerhouse brands reached their current status through their compelling designs, not because of their “this-is-more-than-your-rent” price point. They weren’t status symbols to students like me; for better or worse, I essentially dismissed the value of their exclusivity after knowing I could get a $500 Prada Nylon Hobo bag for 10 dollars on the side of the street. Unlike an older generation that might have conflated luxury purchases with social capital, I was just a kid with a keen eye for design and little interest in proving my own purchasing power.
My parents’ view of luxury brands wouldn’t drive them to such fanatical purchases either; both believe that there are worthier ways to spend money (“錢要花在刀口上”). They are not frequent buyers of luxury brands; instead, they focus on craftsmanship, valuing longevity over flashiness or fleeting fads.
My first and only connection to the world of luxury goods is a hand-me-down Louis Vuitton Sarah wallet from my mother that has clearly seen better days, as evidenced by its rather dull leather. Despite its rugged appearance, the wallet has yet to run its course. To me, this is the true luxury: to purchase items that can eventually become heirlooms, to imbue materialistic goods with sentimental values, knowing they will last.
I believe that shopping shouldn’t be work; it should be a joyful experience. For luxury buyers, though, it seems that a casual jaunt through the mall is not only unpleasant, but worth paying to avoid entirely. What does it say about the luxury market if its top clientele have found a way to make an already-exclusive experience uber-exclusive?
There certainly isn’t a drought for luxury products; walking into any luxury boutique provides overwhelming evidence that the market is alive and well, with capsule collections for nearly every holiday imaginable.
In fact, most brands take advantage of their clients’ willingness to go the extra mile; in fact, they’ll make the mile even longer - and add in a few hoops, for good measure. Whether it’s placing customers in an hour-long queue outside of storefronts, or placing people on year-long waiting lists and making them grow hefty purchase histories to meet a sales quota, brands would deprive you of what you really want, in order to entertain and coerce you into buying what you didn’t want because you feel like you need to prove something to them.
The messy intersections - those of class, race, power, and basic economics - beneath the manicured facade of luxury are fascinating. Even after all the drama, I liked my 15 minutes stint of being a personal shopper. I felt like a food delivery driver, handling French designers instead of French fries. I want to justify what I was doing and say perhaps I could’ve played a part in someone getting their dream bag, but by taking part, I see how I was participating in a larger, vicious ecosystem of manufactured desire.