December 29, 2003

MYSTERIES OF THE MARKETPLACE: Okay, like a lot of folks I got gift certificates for Christmas. With an eye toward using one of them, I was shopping at Bed, Bath & Beyond for cookware and ran across something odd. This All-Clad stainless 12-Inch fry pan was a rather pricy $129.99 (it’s a bit cheaper at the Amazon link, at $124.95, but still steep). But the near-identical, as far as I can tell, Emerilware pan — made by All-Clad, with All-Clad’s name stamped on the bottom — was $59.99. The two appeared almost indistinguishable, except that, if anything, the Emerilware pan seemed slightly heavier and solider.

So what gives? If the pans are different, it doesn’t show, but if ,as seems likely, they are then it’s sort of funny that a famous chef’s signature line is actually inferior to the run-of-the-mill product. On the other hand, if they’re essentially identical, then instead of adding value and letting All-Clad charge more for the same pan because of his endorsement, Emeril’s name would seem to be costing All-Clad money. Can his endorsement be subtracting value? (In a way that makes sense — all other things equal, I’d choose the non-signature item over the signature item — but if most people thought this way, would anyone market signature items?) This article doesn’t help things: it says that the difference between Emerilware and regular All-Clad is largely cosmetic, but also says that Emeril’s name is what’s driving this. So why is the stuff with his name cheaper?

What gives? I’m obviously missing something here.

UPDATE: Hey, forget politics. If you want massive quantities of email, write about cookware! Lots, and I mean lots, of readers weighed in, and Justin Katz has an interesting point about why celebrity-endorsed cookware might be cheaper: “Emeril can be seen as a sort of collective negotiator for his fans — on the payroll of the company. He brings a bunch of new customers, who mightn’t otherwise be in the market for the product, to the store, and to entice the greatest number of them to actually lay down their credit cards, All-Clad lowers the price.” Interesting.

The EmerilWare seems to be slightly inferior to the regular All-Clad, according to several readers. Here’s the best summary, from Brian Erst:

[Discussion of how Calphalon has “extended the brand downward” omitted.]

All-Clad originally just had the “cladded stainless” line (the super heavy, shiny stuff – a three-ply steel-aluminum-steel process that goes all the way up the sides). They then came out with a few cosmetically different lines (LTD has a brushed steel outside, and they have another line that replaces the exterior steel layer with anodized aluminum) but still very high quality. They are now making the move into less expensive, lower-quality stuff (still plenty nice, but not nearly as indestructable, hand down to your grandkids kind of stuff). As I
understand it, the standard All-Clad line is manufactured in the USA, while the Emerilware and their new low-end line is manufactured in China. The Emerilware is not universally “all-clad” – instead of having a thick, three-ply layer going all the way up the sides, they have a thicker disk welded on the bottom and thinner metal on the sides. This gives a similar density on the bottom (dense is good – better heat distribution and heat retention = good searing/less burning), but the sides may warp under high heat (less safe to move the pan from the stovetop to the oven).

For 80-90% of the typical home use, the pan will still give great results, but for high-intensity searing and oven work, stick to the original. And if you want your daughter to secretly covet your pans and fight for them after you die, the original is the way to go. (Of course, maybe with the cheaper stuff, she’ll want you to hang on longer!)

I doubt that the difference in quality really accounts for the difference in price, though. (Which suggests that the profit margin on All-Clad is quite high). Several readers also recommend the Cuisinart MultiClad line. I’ve never used those, but — based on Brian’s description above — it seems comparable to the Emerilware.

I’ve been pretty happy with the few All-Clad pieces I own. When I first bought decent cookware (a Calphalon omelet pan) I was slightly horrified to discover just how much better it was than the stuff I had been using. But I think you hit the point of diminishing returns somewhere along here, and some high-end stuff (chiefly in the appliance field) is actually inferior to the cheaper goods. And it’s certainly true, as one reader observed, that you don’t necessarily get a better product when you spend more money — there’s a lot of market-segmentation going on out there.

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