Bryan Caplan  

A Kingdom for a Frame

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In response to my framing puzzle post, Tyler Cowen asks:

My puzzle is different: why is framing so expensive? The frames are just finished wood, which you could import or buy cheap at a lumber yard. The framing labor is often immigrants. Yet a good framing job can cost more than a refrigerator or washer/dryer set.

I'd say the answer just comes back to my original puzzle. The price is high because firms are not realizing economies of scale. Consumers therefore wind up paying for a ton of overhead (like the typical framing shop that is totally empty 2/3 of the time). The real mystery remains why market forces have yet to consolidate this industry.

Of course, by the time we figure out why this can't happen, Allposters.com may go ahead and do it.


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COMMENTS (16 to date)
Dan Hill writes:

The model is valid for speciality framing shops, and probably represents reasonable value for a custom frame (if you've ever tried to make a frame yourself you'll appreciate that the labour content is far more signficant than the materials). But assuming you can adapt an off the shelf solution to your framing needs, Wal Mart and their Chinese friends will give you all the economies of scale you could want for about $9.95

James Erlandson writes:

And the answer is ... IKEA
28 by 39 inches, US$19.99 to US$29.99. This product requires assembly. Prices higher in Seattle.

If, on the other hand, you'd like some help picking a style, color and size to fit that strange print you got for a dollar at a garage sale, Bob's Frame and Art will be glad to charge what ever the market will bear.

bernard Yomtov writes:

I think Dan Hill is right. There's lots of ready-made frames you can buy for a fraction of the cost of custom framing. They come in standard sizes and a limited number of styles.

But custom frame shops have to carry a wide variety of frames and mats. Then I bet there's a lot of waste, since the moldings, mats, and glass have to be cut to custom sizes. And of course there is labor involved, both in helping the customer select the frame and in doing the work.

The ability to take it online is limited, since the customer usually wants to see how the frame and mat look next to the picture before submitting the final order.

Bob Knaus writes:

What fools these economists be.

People pay high prices for framing because they enjoy the experience. It is the same reason we could charge double what the grocery store got for a head of lettuce at my dad's roadside stand. Or why people will pay me twice the price for a shell bracelet that I've made aboard my boat, as compared to what they sell in the tourist shops ashore. Or why a Starbucks coffee costs more than the 7-Eleven kind. It's not the cost of materials or labor. It's the customer experience.

People like being helped. People like being chatted up. People like to experience something different from their mundane existence.

There is an old salesman's saying, "Discounting is for people who don't add value." In small item retail, adding value is all about interacting with the customer.

Don't enjoy the framing shop experience? Simply proves you aren't of the mindset to be a customer. Just as not everyone enjoys buying shells from me. Takes all kinds!

Paul N writes:

I think Bob is on the right track. People treasure their photographs, and the more they spend on a frame, the more they think it's worth. People aren't buying quality in frames; they're buying cost. This purchasing tendency makes it obvious why there are lots of small, empty framing stores. AK could similarly rail against expensive wedding photographers or designer shoes, but my sense is those are easier-to-understand examples of very similar phenomena.

I still tack stuff up on the walls with brads or push pins, so I for one don't have to feel bad about the lack of cheap frames.

Scott writes:

Right -- being chatted up by some glib salesguy makes me happy to be alive and temporarily lifts me up from my mundane existence. That's it.

Fazal Majid writes:

I buy ready-made, museum-grade archival Nielsen Bainbridge frames for about $30 for an 11x14 print. The whole point of custom framing is to make a statement. To really understand what it is all about, read this hilarious description by Philip Greenspun

madmartagan writes:

I have never found any of the "people are irrational" arguments to be very persuasive. (The worst being that people are paying more for the sake of paying more).

I still think that a model were custom framing requires specialized skills- the acumulation of which makes up the bulk of the capital investment- would result in a model with very weak economies of scale. I find such a model more persuasive than "people are irrational". Furthermore, in a market where most of the capital investment is in human capital (development of skills) it is very difficult for an investor to maintain property rights to the resulting rents. For example, a large company trying to achieve economies of scale in the custom framing market would have to train several individuals in the necessary skills. Once these people are trained however, they have an incentive to leave the large company and set up their own shop so they can obtain all the rents produced by their human capital.

As a result, you would expect that most framing shops are based around a few core workers (master and apprentices) and a few occasional journymen. Probably bound by non-monetary ties, such as blood or friendship.

In my expierence, most framing stores fit this model. Usually taking one of two forms. Either they are run by elite artsy painter types, or by blue-collarish fine woodworking types. Both tend to develop non-monetary bonds among their workers.

I saw some people suggest that most framing labor is preformed by immigrants- maybe, I do see alot of immigrant labor in framing shops, but I don't know if they are the majority. Also, the immigrant labourers are not unskilled immigrants, they are skilled. (A disproportioniate number seem to come from Europe). We need to remember that immigrant is not synonmous with unskilled.

James Erlandson writes:

In the Mass Market, Economies of Scale department, Costco is offering for sale the following frame:

Museum quality framing: Solid wood frame is hand-gilded with 22K gold leaf, frame backed in plexiglass to show hand-written authentication.

for US$129,999.99.

Included is "an original crayon on paper drawing by Pablo Picasso. The front of the work is signed and dated (May 27, 1958) by Pablo Picasso."

Bob Knaus writes:

By saying that people enjoy the framing shop experience, I'm not arguing that people are irrational. I'm arguing that posters on this blog are (in general) ill-equipped to understand what the masses enjoy. So far as I can tell, nearly everyone who comments here is afflicted with high IQ and privileged upbringing. These blessings are greatly desired by those who don't have them... but they are bound to bias the thinking of those who do have them.

If you'd like an example of your inability to comprehend middlebrow pleasures, check out Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light. Now here is a fellow who has figured out how to sell lots of art at a high profit while taking advantage of economies of scale. His paintings are mass-produced offshore. At the mall locations where they are sold, an employee paints in the final dabs of "light" on the canvas with a small brush. So you, as a consumer, get to enjoy seeing an artist at work and then purchasing the completed product.

Keep pushing the Refresh button on your browser to get a sampling of Kinkade's designs.

What was that I heard? You don't think it's art? The designs are cloying and insipid? How can people be so gullible? I don't have the answers to that! But I can tell you, being acquainted with purchasers of "real" art and "Thomas Kinkade" art, that both seem equally happy with their aquisitions.

Which brings up the larger question... how can can economists comment on utility, if they have so little comprehension of what constitutes utility for the majority of people?

madmartagan writes:

There is a problem with that theory Knaus. Most customers I see in custom framing shops are highly educated with privliged upbringing.

Also I find such elitist comments to be offensive. You are essentially saying that these people aren't irrational, they're just either stupid or less refined than us.

I do not accept the premise that we in academia are more intelligent or more refined than non-academia types, or that the general public is stupid about economic choices. Yes, there are stupid individuals, but as a whole, in most economic decisions, people are pretty smart. While there are studies indicating economic myopia is widespread, this does not mean people are irrational or stupid. I think what we attribute to myopia is usually due to a desire to avoid uncertainty.

I have found that if an action is economically sustainable, there is usually a benefit produced, which is why people are supporting it. (The primary execptions being addictive substances).

Bernard Yomtov writes:

Why all this theorizing and these proclamations of superiority, irrationality, etc.?

Customers go to frame shops because they like the product they get. It may come as a surprise to Fazal, but not everything people want to frame is 11x14, or 8x10. Sometimes it's 9 1/8 x 13 1/16. Then you need a custom frame. Sometimes you want a mat that isn't white, or you want a double mat or an unusual frame. Is it "making a statement?" No more so than anything else having to with your home. Those who live in a room with a plastic chair and table and sleep on a cot can sneer if they like. From all others this is intolerably smug.

Nor does Bob's theory that this is all silly middlebrow taste hold water. I'd venture that "the masses" don't spend much on custom framing. It's exactly the people who he thinks are so smart who are the frame shop customers.

Bernard has it exactly right. There are no economies of scale in CUSTOM framing. It's labor intensive, and it's skilled labor.

And I don't just mean the woodworking. To make a painting (or even a print) look its best takes a good eye for color and contrast. You have to get just the right combination of artwork, matting and frame. That takes experience.

You've got expensive inventory, high retail rents, presentable employees, custom labor. That's why frames cost a couple of hundred dollars minimum.

Lauren writes:

Though I support the supply-explanations that there are few economies of scale for frames, I'd like to add a demand-explanation. There are two markets for frames: ready-made and custom.

I'd rephrase Bryan's question this way: Why is it that the framing industry has so many custom shops while similar industries have so few? In that context, frame stores look cheap! There are dozens of rug stores (pre-sized or wall-to-wall), stationery stores (consider buying wedding invitations), hardware stores. I think the answer lies in tastes. Tastes for decoration differ, and it's easy to forget what a wide variety of products can be supported by tastes other than our own.

A control case with which to compare the framing business is the shelving business. If I want to buy bookshelves, I can buy ready-made (mass-produced, subject to economies of scale) shelves at Walmart, Target, and somewhat higher-end versions at places like Ikea, or other unfinished and finished furniture outlets. But if I want shelves that really look good where I want to put them, or are really sturdy, I can either spend hours of my time running from store to store, measuring, matching, comparing the thicknesses of the various woods, composites, the heights and adjustability of shelves, and paints/stains; or I can hire someone to build shelves specifically for the room, floor to ceiling.

Similarly with picture framing. There are many pre-sized frames available in styles I can select from by substituting my time running from store to store. Or, I can hire someone--by going to a framing store--to do a more customized job.

A few months ago I went to a local framing store--one of three within easy driving distance. I fretted before doing it! They are so expensive! But the fact was, I had an original piece of artwork in ink, and I wanted to find a frame that would balance one I'd bought at a flea-market for a similar print, because I wanted to hang them across a doorway from each other.

What happened when I was at the store was eye-opening. First, let me say that the work they did was better than anything I'd dreamt of. The owner had art skills I don't have, and engineering skills I thought I had but learned that a field-specialist has more of. She looked at the flea-market example and at my original artwork, and in minutes picked out three perfectly colored mats for me to select from--from books of mat samples I'd have had to look through for an hour had I tried to do it on my own. She explained to me details like why I should bother with acid-free matting for an original inkwork, the pros and cons of different kinds of glass both to match the item I'd brought in and per my description of the lighting conditions for hanging this pair of pictures. She solved size-problems I'd been baffled by concerning the different dimensions of this picture compared to the one I was trying to match it with--something I'd never thought would be solved!--by creatively suggesting how to mat this picture without detracting from the artist's intent. And we picked out a frame that was wondrously well-matched to the other frame--yet the original was wood while our matching one was metal! Yes, it cost me $175. The alternatives were that I could continue sticking this original ink to my wall with a hook through the backing paper as I'd done for two years, or buy a pre-made frame that was clearly the wrong size with a jarringly-white mat.

While I cooled my heels waiting my turn, I eventually went from annoyance to fascination. The person before me was not just shooting some breeze in her discussions with the owner. She was seriously trying to figure out how to mat and frame what I finally glimpsed on the sly--a stunning, colorful piece of original modern art--in a way that would work in her house.

And while I waited, someone came in after me who would have to wait in turn. When we got to talking while we awkwardly pretended to look at frame samples and alternately patted the aged grateful dog, it turned out she was bringing in the new art for a major annual city festival. She placed a standard annual order at this shop for various kinds of frames for the unveilings of the first-printings of their posters: one for their official series, and several others for the various art museums and art-movie theaters that will display their posters to best advantage so long as their own framing-standards are met.

And as I walked out, I held the door for a man carrying an appealing oil painting of a local harbor--he'd painted it himself.

The demand is obviously there, else there wouldn't have been a line. Is there a monopoly or government regulation behind the paucity of framing services and high prices? I think not.

The remaining question in my mind is not why framing shops charge so much, but why humans have a taste for individualized decorations in the private spaces they own. Since time immemorial, people have paid fortunes for individualized decorations by great artists in their homes, churches, synagogues, mosques, museums, places of government, and graves (why do coffins cost so much?). That decorative industries with no economies of scale, including the layout of rooms, the paint we put on our walls, the fabric on our chairs, the frames for our pictures, the variety in appliances we own, repeatedly spring up, seems to me a function of an underlying demand for individual expression and beauty around us.

In that framework, frames are intermediate. The final consumer good is beauty in our surroundings, and beauty is both individual and imperfectible.

Bob Knaus writes:

Bravo Lauren! One on-target personal anecdote is worth a dozen fabricated theories. Yours is by far the most graceful post on any recent thread. If I may take the liberty of quoting e.e.cummings:

mr youse needn't be so spry concernin questions arty

each has his tastes but as for i
i likes a certain party

I'm sorry if my implication of elitism amongst the posters on this blog offended. My intent is always to challenge thinking, never to offend the thinker. If I offend, my message may not get through.

I have the good fortune to work with the intelligent and privileged youth of America every spring and summer, teaching them how to sail in the Bahamas. I tell them that our week together is only nominally about sailing, that my real purpose is to challenge the orthodoxies they have learned and to present them with some alternate viewpoints. God knows they could use them!

Glen Smith writes:

Bespoke framing almost always looks better.

Many times it's your only option when you've got odd-sized pictures.

For most people I know, framing is a specific need/desire so they tend to find those places which are primarily framers instead of just going to the local big box store to pick one up while they shop for other items.

Affirmation of the value of the item being framed. I've rarely heard anyone say that the framer laughed at their picture (unless laughing was what the picture wanted).

Expert opinions about different framing options.

Prestige.

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