What is "quality"?

November 1, 2018

I'm going to start with the bottom line and let you dare read further if you wish for this one:


Define quality according to you. Does quality mean tough and long lasting leather goods? Does it mean cosmetics and jewelry that are gentle on your body by being organic or hypoallergenic? Does it mean clothing that is made in the USA or thoughtfully sourced? Does it mean any product that was made by fairly employed people rather than machines or sweatshops? We have the power to define what quality means to us. It is worth considering letting go of labels and brand assumptions, which can sometimes be misconceptions. What does quality mean to you?

The concept for this post started at the Sephora boutique on Newbury Street, situated between Berkley & Clarendon streets as the ground level of a sleek, modern building. The store sits amongst similar big names like Victoria's Secret and Nordstrom Rack. (It's not relevant, but I had a major opinion about the company's excitement over this new location as its first "studio concept" store, described as if it delivers a boutique feel. The "concept" is nothing but a missed opportunity, since there is absolutely no differentiation between this and any regular Sephora store besides a smaller footprint. Read more here, if you're interested.) Anyway, I was casually browsing the mini Sephora aisles waiting for a dear friend to arrive. We planned to head elsewhere for a snack and catch up sesh after perusing the selection of travel-sized items for her upcoming trip. I naturally found myself in the "Sephora favorites" end cap for eyeliner. (Yup... exactly the ones you see in a regular Sephora store). I was interested in the selection, regardless of knowing that neither this "concept boutique" nor any regular Sephora store even carry the best liquid eyeliner known to woman. Alas, the best liquid eyeliner known to woman was running low and I was open to trying something new. My eye was drawn to the only metallic pencil out of the display of 20-or-so. It was a shiny rose gold and wider than the other skinny, black tubes. Its shape also stood out with a round-edged triangular shape on either end instead of the perfect cylinder we've come to expect from eyeliner. It was sleek. It was fierce. It was FENTY!



Even though I was already lined-up, I decided to test the felt tip by drawing wings on both sides. Ooh, it was nice. Sold.


The first time I used it, merely removing the cap felt like I was unleashing my inner badass. I don't think I would have been phased if Rihanna herself had oozed out of the container, genie-style. I already knew it could make a sleek cat eye, but what else would I discover? (Wow, as I'm writing I am realizing that I am taking this way too seriously!) Compared to the other felt tip liquid eyeliners I was used to, this one was slightly shorter and harder. As I drew the line across my lid, it sort of... hurt. Maybe I was just using heavy hand based on the products I'd used previously. The line was precise and dark, but the tough tip actually removed the product in the center of the line. Compare this to using a dried Sharpie. You can see where the mark is made, but the felt tip is removing ink at the center of the stroke. I had to retrace the line more gently, adding precious minutes to my routine. We definitely remove points for that. Removing the liner that evening was nightmarish. Even my best makeup remover couldn't get it off; and what it could was like flaking old paint off a metal lawn chair. Ouch!


I continued using the product for a week but was unimpressed; not necessarily because it's a bad product. It was uncharacteristic of me to have purchased it at all. Truth be told, I'm not a big fan of bad gal Riri. I blame this decision on the rose gold. With every angular swipe, I thought about quality. What is quality? Are we believing what people tell us about quality or do we define it ourselves? How much of what we consume is because of the name or designer? Does a well-known name make something better? What role does packaging and branding play in our decision to consume and to trust?


It's not a foreign concept to me. Working in the mid-to-high-end retail business for almost a decade taught me how to explain these things to people. Background: I used to manage a footwear and accessories boutique. I know, so fun right?! We sold contemporary level designer items. "Contemporary level" is a term used for expensive things that are not those expensive things. (Yes to Tory Burch, Kate Spade, Jack Rogers, and Hunter. No to Valentino, Gucci, YSL, and Chanel.) I think the term is funny because no one knows what it means, and every time I use it I have to explain what it is anyway, so there's no point in having a term at all.


Upset customers would ask me why a $750 handbag had unravelling threads. Better yet, why had the color of their jeans transferred onto a white leather bag? They wanted to know why their $150 rain boots were leaking. They didn't understand why the suede of their ballet flats was wearing thin at the edges of the shoes. Their thought processes were along the lines of, "I paid good, hard-earned money for this item. Why is it disappointing me? (And what are you going to do about it?)"


My response was always what you'd expect from a customer service professional, but every now and then I got a customer who I could relate to. Someone who seemed open minded. Someone willing to have a conversation beyond the parameters of, essentially, fix this as soon as possible with no cost me. When these unicorns presented themselves, it was such a relief to engage in real talk. The expensive handbag has loose stitches because it's made of thread and leather. It's not magical thread and leather because it was expensive. It's just a bag, sewn together, and you've used it. Materials are vulnerable, especially (and I know it's specific to this category, but) materials that are made out of fine leather. It's softer, more supple, more buttery. One should not expect that high-end stuff to somehow be tough because it was expensive. PVC is tough. Those rubber boots crack because they are made of rubber and plastic. Shoes made of fine suede wear thin because you literally step on them all day long. All of this is obvious to me now, but maybe I would have felt differently if I were the one investing. (P.S. Retail breaks you, I will never consume anything with the naiveness I was once lucky to have!)


I am not saying that expensive things are bad quality, we all know that's untrue. I'm just saying that they aren't magical because they came from a certain brand or with a certain price tag. There's a reason Rihanna made her eyeliner tube shiny and different, this is the nature of the business of products and cosmetics. For this category of goods, what's inside does not usually dictate the initial sale, because it can't. For example, I can't try a week's worth of eyeliner to see how it feels on my skin in a store, so I'm going to choose the one with the brand vibe and packaging that best appeals to my taste.


The moral of this (LONG) story goes back to the first paragraph. It's time we all decide what quality is and shed our preconceptions that price and quality are interchangeable. In most cases, price reflects quality, but we should be discerning with our choices in order to be more responsible consumers.

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