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With The Birkin Bag, Hermes Plays Hard to Get


A Birkin costs between $10,000 and $200,000. It's a bag - a purse made by the French luxury brand Hermes. And here's the weird part. Birkins are almost always mysteriously out of stock. Stacey Vanek Smith from our Planet Money podcast explains.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Wednesday Martin can remember the exact moment she started wanting a Birkin bag. She had just moved to the very posh Upper East Side of Manhattan. She was walking down the sidewalk, and she saw very well-dressed woman coming towards her.

WEDNESDAY MARTIN: She was walking sort of at me so that I had to move further and further to the right until finally, I found myself stopping right up against this garbage can. Then she brushed right by me with her handbag.

SMITH: Martin is pretty sure that handbag was a Birkin. They're large, boxy purses made of leather. They have a padlock on the clasp.

MARTIN: That was a dominance display and that woman used her handbag to do it.

SMITH: Birkins have been the luxury it-bag for 30 years. They've graced the shoulders of Elizabeth Taylor, Beyonce, Kim Kardashian. To claim a place in her new neighborhood, Martin thought, I need one of those bags. She headed to Hermes.

MARTIN: This lovely saleswoman said, I hope you'll understand, we'll have to wait.

SMITH: Hermes actually tries not to sell Birkin bags to people - that is, according to Michael Tonello. He wrote an entire book on the Birkin bag.

MICHAEL TONELLO: They tell you that they don't have any Birkins in the store. Or they'll tell you that there's a waiting list anywhere from two years to four years. At one point, they were saying that there was a waiting list to get on the waiting list.

SMITH: Hermes says the reason for this is that each Birkin bag takes a long time to make, and they just can't keep up with demand. I ran this by former advertising executive Josh Weltman. They're like, listen. It takes 12 hours to make one, people have to apprentice for years. This product is special.


SMITH: (Laughter).

WELTMAN: I'm sorry, it's not.

SMITH: Weltman says the reason for the extreme scarcity of the Birkin bag has nothing to do with how it's made. Telling people they can't have one, turning people away - that is part of the marketing.

WELTMAN: They play hard to get. That's how they seduce you. They haze you.

SMITH: Hazing doesn't create resentment?

WELTMAN: No, it creates a bond. Once you're in, it makes you feel worthy. It gives you identity.

SMITH: The long line outside of a nightclub, elite colleges publishing the enormous number of applicants they reject - that is the same thing. Weltman says we all want to be part of some club and that is just out of reach. And staying just out of reach, even for the super-rich, that is exactly why the Birkin has been at the top of the handbag food chain for 30 years. Take Wednesday Martin. After Hermes banished her to the waiting list, she wanted a Birkin even more. It took her almost a year of trying, but she finally bagged one. She showed it to me.

Can I touch it?

MARTIN: Yeah, touch it.

SMITH: It's very, like, clean lines - very plain, really.

MARTIN: It's very plain and simple.

SMITH: Here's the truth - that bag is so underwhelming. It is, like, aggressively underwhelming. It's ugly and boxy and the leather doesn't even look that nice. But as I was holding the Birkin, I kept trying to see what was so glorious about it. I thought, this is a $10,000 purse. People wait for years to get this purse. If I can't see why it's special, I have the problem. Even though I could see right through Birkin's marketing strategy, it still worked on me - and on Wednesday Martin.

Did you ever feel a little suckered by Hermes?

MARTIN: Are you kidding? Of course. Only every single second I felt ridiculous about it all the time. And I still do.

SMITH: Still, Wednesday says the Birkin did help her feel more at home on the Upper East Side. And she never got pushed off a sidewalk again. Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.