Posted on February 6, 2024 in Technology

Tulips and Stanley Cups

In the 1630s Netherlands, tulips became the next hot commodity. They’re very pretty, super easy to garden with, and easy to transport thanks to their bulbous root structure. They were also fashionably new to the region at the time. It’s a classic tale of speculative bubbles, where huge amounts of land and sacks of money were traded for individual bulbs right up until the market crashed in 1637. The crash wasn’t as bad as you might think given the cost of investing – those rumors came from an author who wrote about it in 1841, perhaps confusing satirical writings into his book, where manuscript data suggests it was mostly just another trendy item with some big outliers that made the news. It happens today, too! People spent millions on NFTs, and then the market crashed, but the average person buying ‘less valuable’ pictures of cartoon apes with hats and glasses could recover, and the market at large was fine.

Even so, the more realistic tales of the tulip craze are a great window into human psychology. Tulips are pretty; people like pretty things; they will brag about the exclusivity of the pretty things they bought; they will spend a lot of money to signal that they can afford pretty things that last a while; I can buy these things and then resell them for more than they’re strictly worth; I must keep interest in the product high or else my investment will lose its value.

Why the Cup?

NFTs were always worthless. Come on, a picture? Just on the blockchain? But some items fit into this tulip niche where supply is not limited except by an unexpected surge in demand. Most recently, the Stanley Cup!

It is what it says it is – it’s an insulated cup. Much like the original tulip, it’s useful and it comes in pretty colors. Even more like the tulip, it’s being bought and resold at absurd prices, and less savvy investors are taking it as a sign that they can buy a pallet of cups and then resell them at an absurd price.

Images of eBay listings going for hundreds of dollars echo the tulip craze: the thriftier folk looking to get in on the trend may stake out their local Target or Walmart to get a good price on the cup as soon as it comes in, and only a narrow band of people who have money to burn will ‘invest’ in limited edition versions at the eye-watering prices being used to drum up interest in articles. Some take it a step further and collect all of the individual colors of the cup they can find or order, putting up shelves to display dozens of the product theoretically made to reduce the number of disposable cups that someone needs to use and buy. Much like tulips, the visibility of the consumption is part of its allure. The ability to collect, the need to use, the casual display of the cup on a counter, just barely in the video, the showstopping framing of the cup as it’s unboxed or washed with a handful of other cups. The durability of the powder coating, the durability of the straw, the durability of the sliding mechanism, the durability of the label – sure, you could buy some lame local flowers Yeti tumblers, or you could buy the cup that’s on the Tonight Show! The cup for the busiest bees! The brand is truly central to the craze. On TikTok, there’s even a video of a person laminating the (disposable barcode) label so she could tape it back onto the cup without fearing it would tear.

It’s about spending more money than is strictly necessary to obtain a product that has cheaper substitutes, the fact that the tulip is a tulip and not that it’s red or striped, the fact that the Stanley is heavy and powder-coated and Stanley brand, not the fact that it’s good at what it does. You can tell this is the case because the Yeti product is almost identical, but gets sneered at, and – if it’s just for cool beverages – the Hydroflask/Nalgene trend already had this cycle of hype and hypedeath on social media amongst teenagers a couple of years ago. Unlike Hydroflasks, the Stanley’s variety of colors is creating little pockets of scarcity that aren’t actually there, and may keep this craze around for longer as the urge to collect the hot item of the month is never actually satisfied until the buyer has all the colors.

The insanity will one day end, and who knows what resellers or collectors will do with the cups at that point. Just like tulips, the product couldn’t have gotten a foothold if it wasn’t at least decent enough to carry around and look at, and just like tulips, there will likely remain a niche community awaiting the return of the cup madness with fifty different cups on their wall. Remember Hydroflasks? We’ll see it again. It’ll come back around.

The Future Of Microtrends

Hot commodity items find their way into thrift stores and onto secondhand seller sites moments after the first comment on an influencer video declares them overrated. The product is demanded, the product runs out, the company makes more, and then it’s over. This need to be seen and recognized as in-the-loop on TikTok and Instagram leads to people obsessively buying things and then discarding them after they are no longer hot. Companies love this – they get a little better at artificially creating runs on a product every time it happens. The best thing to do is simply not partake in a trend that revolves around buying something. Recipes, dances, and DIY costumes are all plenty of fun and don’t involve buying overpriced fast-fashion or a second-third-fourth reusable cup. Just step away a second. Do you want the product because it’s good and you’ll use it, or because it’s good and it’s trendy?