All Commentary
Saturday, December 16, 2017

Why Are Scented Candles So Darn Expensive?

Because candles have become a huge part of our lives and we are willing to pay for it.

A century ago, having electric indoor lighting was a luxury of the rich. It was a dangerous technology at the time – one thing goes wrong and the whole house is up in flames – but people took the risk. 150,000 years of lighting rooms with wax and oil was just too much. The future would be about glass bulbs and electric filaments. If you were rich and believed in the future, you had your home wired.

If we did not learn to dominate nature, our existence on earth would be short-lived or constantly threatened by beasts, pests, and weather. What happened to the candle? Hang around any holiday party now and you will find out. They are back in a big way. It’s not just for religious services and dining tables anymore. You see them everywhere. I was at a gathering last night in a pretty posh home where there must have been 100 candles burning, on every shelf, table, and window. It was glorious. It gave all rooms a luxurious glow, and it elicited from us some deep nostalgia, a sense that we are connecting with the past.

Primitive but Meaningful

And it’s not just holidays. Candles have become a weirdly huge part of our lives. We burn them all the time and for any excuse we can think of. What is this about? Maybe it’s about celebrating one of the first great inventions in history: fire.

If we did not learn to dominate nature, our existence on earth would be short-lived or constantly threatened by beasts, pests, and weather. Humans are physically weak compared with other animals – which is why a safari is truly terrifying – but we do have one great asset: our minds. It is this we used to control fire. We can never stop being reminded of this great achievement. Perhaps this is why a controlled fire makes us feel safe and secure, and points to a meaningful life.

Poets and philosophers have pointed to fire as the metaphor for creative thought.  When humankind learn how to create and control fire, we could sterilize food and make it taste better. We could stay warm in winter. We could light up the dark. We learn to make fires to create a sense of community.

The theme of fire was central to the earliest religions. It was a symbol of our survival and capacity for making progress happen through human ingenuity. Poets and philosophers have pointed to fire as the metaphor for creative thought. It is fire in the mind. The fire of invention. The fire of romance. The fire of art.

There is pure delight in capturing that fire from the gods, controlling it to the point that it lives on a small wick and burns in a stable shape while a glass or tin container reliably protects us from its terrors. It’s a symbol of what human hands can do: capture and control nature, even something as potentially ruinous as fire, and make it our servant instead.

And think of the fireplace and its popularity in our homes. They are no longer necessary. It’s been nearly a century since we’ve had other ways to heat our homes. And yet we still want fireplaces. We want them in all our rooms, even hotel rooms, even if we don’t use them. We even put pictures of fire in our fireplaces, just to impart the psychological sense of warmth. The romance is still there after all these years.

The Scented Candle

I was asked to bring a gift to a party last week and got me thinking about something that everyone wants besides single malt scotch, something that is affordable. Part of the rule was that you couldn’t spend more than $10. I knew the answer: a scented candle. Everyone loves them!

But try to find one for under $10. It’s not easy. I finally did. I bought an extra one for myself. Now I know why it was discounted. It didn’t smell that great. If you want one that smells like cedar, pie, or cookies baking, you are going to pay more for a candle of any substantive size.

Of course you could go all in for a lime/basil/mandarin candle for $350. From there, you can go lower with many options from $200, $100, $50, or flip the site flow from lowest to highest and discover that there are essentially no bargains to be had at all. You are going to be out $18 for a scented candle of a decent size, and there is nothing you can do about it.

No consumer is willing to spend solely out of sympathy for the plight of the seller. This is all a bit shocking given how much we’ve come to expect lower and lower prices on everything not controlled by government. There are bargains everywhere (shoes, food, software, everything) thanks to the advent of digital commerce and rivalrous competition for product and price. Not so with candles.

Price Dictates Cost

The candle market is highly competitive. Why aren’t prices falling lower and lower? The first and most common explanation is that these candles cost a lot to make and therefore those costs are passed on to the consumer. But this is a fallacy. Cost does not determine price, else paperclips (which require an amazing amount of capital input to make) would be $1,000 a piece, and a Renaissance masterwork painting (the costs long ago borne and the painter long dead) would be a few bucks.

The Candle Makers Petition was not necessary after all.  In a rivalrous market, the causation runs in the reverse. People are willing to pay a certain price for a product. This is a signal to producers how much they can invest and spend in order to create it. If the demand isn’t there, the product isn’t produced at all. No consumer is willing to spend out of sympathy for the plight of the seller. We buy only if and to the extent that we expect to benefit relative to what we shell out. Final price, then, determine the costs that producers are willing to bear in order to bring the product to market.

All of which is to say: you are paying for that candle because you want it. It is the right price insofar as the exchange takes place. If the consuming public suddenly decided that scented candles aren’t a thing, the leftover inventory will be dumped hard and fast, and you will be able to find candles for the same price as a fast-food burger. Or perhaps as the competitive process rolls forward, we’ll see prices bid lower and lower by new entrants to the market.

I want those days to come soon.

The Candle Bubble

In the meantime, I admit it, I’m willing to pay the price in the midst of this candle bubble. Just gotta have them. It’s irrational by any standard. But there is something about watching that contained fire, and smelling the crazy smell, that thrills me, and, apparently, you too.

I don’t want to read by it. I don’t want to depend on it. I prefer my switches and bulbs for practicality. But here we are today: we consume prehistoric achievements of the human mind as a luxury good. And we are willing to pay way too much to do so.

That Candle Makers Petition was not necessary after all.