Memo: The Aspiration of Health

As New York goes, so does the rest of retail. Across the wealthiest neighborhoods in New York City, new retailers are opening the doors to those who can afford it. Well-appointed and with an aura of exclusivity, these storefronts are not designed for the democratization of goods but rather something to the opposite effect. Doom scroll through Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat or any other social platform and you may see signs that the pandemic doesn’t affect everyone quite the same. You have faithfully executed the solo quarantine for nearly nine months. Meanwhile, there are dinner parties and other high-profile gatherings going on around you. In October, Kim Kardashian shared news of her successful vacation with nearly 40 friends and members of her family.

After two weeks of multiple health screens and asking everyone to quarantine, I surprised my closest inner circle with a trip to a private island where we could pretend things were normal just for a brief moment in time. [1]

While you were alone and eating bodega cake, the modern-day Marie Antoinette was swimming near whales and watching movies on the beach. Wealth is an expression most commonly viewed through the lens of possessions. But in a pandemic year, the foremost expression of wealth is simply a normal life. In Gilded Age 2.0, I explained:

This era has begun to reveal sharp contrasts in how Americans approach the consumption of goods and services. Net consumption continues to grow despite a catastrophic number of store closures. Some in retail and media are quietly recognizing that the most competitive approach to growth is the pursuit of the modern luxury consumer – a cohort that seems to be invulnerable to these shifts. Products have become more exclusive, with higher quality production, and superior service. [2PM, 2]

The modern aspirational economy is changing. Doctor of Sociology Ana Andjelic’s recently published “The Business of Aspiration” explains the phenomenon that we are witnessing today:

Modern aspiration economy is anchored not in accumulation and display of possessions or even experiences, but of social capital, environmental credits, and cultural savviness. […] The modern capital is also rooted in FOMO (fear of missing out). […] There’s status in membership in a community, or in the ability to attract and command attention on social media by accumulating likes and followers. [3]

The retailers that are popping up in the wealthy neighborhoods of New York City don’t sell shoes, purses or even designer face masks. Just blocks away from long lines at the CityMD, these retailers sell the exclusivity of healthcare with no wait. Found in prestigious locales like Montauk’s Surf Lodge, accessible and expedient rapid testing is the most luxurious product available to consumers today. In August, the New York Times wrote:

One of the easier places to get a rapid coronavirus test is the Surf Lodge, a hotel and restaurant in Montauk, N.Y., known for hosting and entertaining celebrities including John Legend and Bon Jovi. [4]

As on November, you don’t even have to travel to Montauk. You can walk to a store in Soho, New York and pay $450 to sit in relative luxury while you await your fate. It takes no longer than 15 minutes.

Behold, Rapid Test NYC. A swankier alternative to City MD, the shiny spot offers three different tests with results in as little as 15 minutes, along with, fittingly enough for this crowd, “frequent flyer” packages with discounts, in case you have to get tested often for work, school, travel, or let’s be real, play. Using the most accurate rapid test machine on the market (over 95% accuracy) they are certainly striving to make safety a priority while providing, according to their reviews, literal five-star service. [5]

The latest aspirational category to rise is one birthed by bifurcation and pandemic. The luxury commercialization of rapid tests achieves Andjelic’s definition of new aspiration while being built on one of the old: the exclusivity of retail real estate in luxury developments. The consumer is not just buying the $450 test, they are buying the right to live normally, even if just for one social event. The rapid test is the one consumer good that enables some semblance of freedom in today’s market. To be seen or heard in social settings without the insulting gaze of others requires this 95% accurate test.

This pivot to health as an aspirational product will have wider implications, as luxury goods tend to go. As more retailers understand the demand curve of this offering, more will offer it within their existing storefronts. The investment into this offering has a six to 12 month window of opportunity before we begin to return to the old normal. Imagine the rapid test pop-up within Saks Fifth Avenue stores or as a stand alone area in America’s finest malls beyond the borders of the progressive retail capital. It wouldn’t be surprising to see early vaccinations distributed in similar manners. There are applications of this in operation today. New-age health technology companies like Levels interface with medical physicians to provide direct-to-consumer products that were once prescription-only.

This retail trend has a short shelf life. When rapid tests are made more widely available, the luxury appeal of them will vanish. But their demand will presumably be replaced by demand for early-stage administrations of a vaccine without the lines of CityMD. That luxury has a longer window. But as Andjelic has pointed out, aspiration is more social and savvy than before. We live for the documentation of our experiences. And as COVID cases rise, so will the new Veblen good that has risen with it: a social life.

The aspirational retail health experience is one that the top .01% have long known. Today, the top 1% are carrying it like a Birkin bag. The edge of awareness is the first stage of aspiration. It will diffuse, from the streets of Soho to the upscale retail developments of Nashville, Columbus, and Charlotte.

By Web Smith | Art: Alex Remy | Editor: Hilary Milnes | About 2PM 

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