© 2024 WMKY
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Hermès accused of antitrust violations by customers who tried to buy a Birkin bag

Former first lady Melania Trump is seen toting a Hermes handbag while walking across the South Lawn of the White House in 2019.
Carolyn Kaster
Former first lady Melania Trump is seen toting a Hermes handbag while walking across the South Lawn of the White House in 2019.

The French luxury house Hermès is known for its play-hard-to-get sales tactics — the scarcity of its famed Birkin handbag is what makes the "it" bag a status symbol among the rich. That strategy now lies at the center of a lawsuit filed by shoppers in California.

Hermès is being sued over allegations that it will only sell its coveted Birkin bag to customers with "a sufficient purchase history."

Hermès violated antitrust law by illegally "tying" the purchase of Birkin bags to the purchase of the luxury brand's other items, according to a proposed class-action complaint filed in San Francisco on Tuesday.

The "it" bags, named after the late actress Jane Birkin, can cost well over $100,000 and are only sold at the company's retail stores.

Store sales associates earn a commission on shoes, scarves, belts, jewelry, home goods and non-Birkin handbags, but not on Birkins.

The complaint claims that Hermes' compensation structure for sales associates was designed to ensure its employees follow its scheme.

One of the two plaintiffs named in the suit, who had already spent tens of thousands of dollars at Hermès, was "coerced into purchasing Ancillary Products in order to obtain access to Hermès Birkin bags," according to the complaint. As a result, she was "unable to purchase another Birkin Handbag in September 2022." The other plaintiff made multiple attempts to purchase a Birkin bag, but was told on each occasion he needed to purchase other items and accessories," and was unable to purchase a Birkin.

Representatives for Hermès could not immediately be reached for comment.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, "If the seller offering the tied products has sufficient market power in the 'tying' product, these arrangements can violate the antitrust laws."

The legal complaint claims that the "unique desirability, incredible demand and low supply" of Birkin handbags gives Hermès "incredible market power."

Plaintiffs are seeking class-action status, an unspecified amount in damages be awarded to them and any other affected parties, and an order barring Hermès from the alleged illegal practices.

Many people on social media showed little sympathy for the aggrieved parties, dismissing the legal complaint as a rich person problem.

"Unpopular opinion but the Birkin bag isn't cute enough to be causing this much drama," one user wrote on X.

Another user riffed on a 2001 episode of Sex and the City that immortalized the bag's grip on culture. The character Samantha tries to use Lucy Liu's name to skip the 5-year waitlist for a Birkin bag.

The user teased, "When Samantha finally got her Birkin bag, she couldn't help but wonder, had she unwittingly participated in the violation of US antitrust law?"

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.