I grew up collecting things. As a teenager, I worked in a comic book and baseball card store. In college, I became a DJ at the radio station, and began seriously collecting records/music. The “limited edition” has always held a great allure for me. Not only does this increase the likelihood of an item increasing in value, there is also a feeling of being special – in a world of mass production, I’m one of only a limited number of people to own a specific artifact.
Of course, the value proposition does not always hold up. Many of the “limited edition” comic books I bought in the early 90s have little to no value today, as the comics boom that happened during those years meant that many limited editions were produced in quantities much greater than any of the popular mainstream editions historically or since. And even when editions truly are limited, there needs to be some demand for the items for them to rise in value.
There is also the tricky notion of the collector mentality. When I was around age 12 or 13, I wanted a GI Joe plane because I had heard that toys that stayed in their packaging were a great collectible investment. Plus, this COBRA plane looked really cool. I was thrilled when I unwrapped it and effusively thanked my aunt. However, I was horrified when she suggested we open it and put it together, explaining how it had to stay in its original shrinkwrap to retain its value. That was my mom’s turn to be horrified, and she told me in no uncertain terms that I was going to open it up and play with it and stop acting so ungrateful, that toy cost a lot of money and it was bought to be played with.
I didn’t understand my mom’s point of view at the time, but by my college years, when I was collecting records, I started to get it. I tried to rid myself of the attitude and habits of “collector scum” – those who would buy up copies of pricey limited edition stuff and then never listen to it, just so they could sell it at a markup at a record fair. These people didn’t seem like real fans – music was made to be listened to, not stocked away as some sort of investment. Also, I had become somewhat disillusioned with the comics world and savvy enough to realize that many of these limited editions were simply cash grabs by megacorporations hoping to exploit fans by making them buy 5 copies of the same thing instead of one, due to “limited edition variant covers.” CD releases with bonus/hidden tracks struck that same chord with me, and I vowed not to be “collector scum” but rather a *real* fan.
Over the years, I’ve gone back and forth on the whole collector mentality – things are never as black and white as they seem in high school and college. Over the last several years, I’ve made an effort to put my money where my values are, which has primarily meant spending money on new books and records rather than used, and supporting businesses that I would like to see thriving, but has also meant paying a little more attention (and sometimes paying a little more $$) for purchases that have some component of social good (or in some cases are the lesser of all evils).
I recently bought a couple things that I consider to be big-ticket splurges, and in each case I looked at the price, and decided that it wasn’t worth it – this was something that I didn’t *need*. But then I saw that there was a charitable component to the purchase, which along with each item being a limited edition pushed me over the edge and let me self-justify the purchase decision.
The first purchase was a pair of prescription sunglasses from Warby Parker. I’ve bought my glasses from Warby Parker for several years now. When I first needed glasses, I went with the cheapest, simplest pair at the mall (same place that I got my eye exam), but over the years I was convinced that glasses, like shoes, get daily wear and you can justify spending a little more to get something well-styled and somewhat unique. Initially I was a big fan of SEE eyewear, discovered on a trip to Nashville, but when it came time for a new pair of glasses it was difficult to order online and I wasn’t making a multi-state trip just for glasses. I looked at a couple other online options and could have saved more money with Zenni, but I liked the design aesthetic at Warby Parker better and knowing that my purchase would provide a free pair of glasses to people in need via VisionSpring pushed me over the top to become a loyal customer.
Still, I tend to wear glasses a little too long, letting my prescription expire at times. And the prescription sunglasses, while a necessity due to the need to wear them while driving (arguably the time when glasses are most important), are an extra $50 at Warby Parker. When they announced the limited edition Kidd sunglasses, which support 826 National / 826 Valencia (a literacy/writing nonprofit for children that I’ve long admired), I struggled with the purchase. The glasses were cool-looking, but I already had a pair of sunglasses that I liked even a little better. Though that pair had a scratch that might be causing headaches. In the end, the combination of knowing that I was helping a good cause and that there would only be 825 other people with this pair of sunglasses pushed me over the edge, and I bought a pair.
The other recent purchase was a limited edition copy of The David Foster Wallace Reader. David Foster Wallace has been one of my favorite authors since 1996ish, and when his archives were released and I saw how heavily he annotated his own books, it was freeing in a way I never imagined – I began underlining and dog-earing my own books realizing that to keep myself from doing so was keeping myself from fully enjoying them. My attempts to keep spines uncracked was a holdover from my collector days. And so when I first heard about the release of this book, I figured that it was a waste of money, I had copies of all the uncollected work anyway, I’d wait until it came out in paperback and then find a copy on sale. Hachette didn’t need my money – I’d spend it on other authors like Roxane Gay and Amelia Gray, who could use the boost in sales a bit more.
But then I heard about the limited edition. At $300, it was 10x as expensive as the version I considered way too pricey. But it’s limited to 0nly 250 copies. And the painting used for the cover of the book, by Karen Green, would be cut into 250 pieces with one piece each included in the limited edition copies. Then, to top it all off, $50 from each book would go to a youth poetry/literacy/creative writing nonprofit. Once I went to amazon and saw that it was being sold for $200 instead of $300, I barely hesitated before completing my purchase. Don’t get me wrong, the sale *definitely* helped, but the one-two punch of a limited edition and a significant portion of my purchase supporting a cause that I believe in really led to my pulling the trigger.
I’m rarely any company’s target audience. I’m too cheap, and my tastes are a bit too particular in most cases. However, for those companies who are focusing on the long tail consumers, it is worth noting that the combination of a limited edition with a good cause can be really compelling. The limited edition appeals to the collector impulse, the desire to be unique and own something that very few others have. Combining it with a cause helps to ameliorate the guilt of spending on oneself, particularly for something that we clearly don’t *need*.
I’m sure there’s something more to say about the guilt collectors feel (at some point, the collection itself can become burdensome and akin to hoarding) and how charitable partnerships can help consumers overcome this guilt. For me, I’m just thrilled to have bought myself a present that brings me joy whenever I look at it, and to feel secure that I won’t ever have to take it out of the protective cellophane wrapper (and if I do, it will be my decision).