As part of my research for college, I wrote some little surveys - one for people who already wear hats, one for people who don't, and one for historical hats.
I've collated the results, and the information from them is here, as a PDF
I found a few things quite interesting. Regarding the 'historical hats' pricing, I had expected the general price range that people expected to pay to be a lot lower, because headgear is one of the areas in which mass market hats, and machine pressed hats, has actually taken hold (unlike in most other areas of the historical market, other than padding). There are a number of historical specialist hat makers - some untrained, and some fully trained, but they tend to try to fit in with the 'going rate', rather than setting their own prices, and so they have no option but to cut corners in the construction. That's absolutely fair enough, because they are making their livings solely from the hats, and I know how scary it is to stand back and say 'the price is the price, pay it or don't', especially when you won't eat if the person you're saying that to says 'ok, I won't'. That said, most of the hats that are available in the historical market in the UK are simply dreadful. To the point where anybody who wants a properly made hat will not think that hard about importing a hat from America, with all the attendant difficulties of doing so.
I don't intend to turn my back on the historical market, and thankfully, the idea of setting my prices and letting people walk away is not something that scares me any longer. As an example, when I first started costuming, a pair of historical breeches (trousers) cost on average around £35. I was charging £70, and after a while, the orders began to come in. I fully believe that as people see that there is another option, headgear-wise, those who want something of better quality will begin to buy it.
As to the 'modern' surveys. There were a lot more people identifying themselves as hat wearers than I thought there would be - even if they only wear woolly hats or baseball caps, I find it encouraging that nearly as many people consider themselves to like hats, as those who don't.
And among the 'non hat wearers', there were some people who do wear hats, or who would if they could get help with the choosing of them. Very few people were absolutely adamant that they would not wear hats at all. I found it very interesting that the top two reasons people gave for not wearing hats, were that they either didn't know what would suit them, or they had problems finding hats in the right sort of size.
Some of the answers regarding price expectations were a little on the low side, but the people generally answering were clearly not the kind of people who would pay for couture headwear. Although I didn't expect that craft fairs and other fairs would be the second most popular place to buy hats. Anyway, the questions that then come are 'how to get in front of the people who *are* willing to pay a fair price for a couture hat', and 'how to make hats more attractive / affordable to those who can't pay for a couture hat'.
Obviously I can't compete with a chain store, and i have no intention of trying to (I can hold my own against foreign imports, but I have no intention of trying to play on the ground of somebody like (say) M&S or Next, with all the resources that they have.
I think the pricing information definitely lends credence to the idea of producing a diffusion range - something like Stephen Jones 'Miss Jones' and 'Jones Boy', that is mass produced, (and therefore more affordable), without diluting the design aesthetic too much.
I've also had success (with costume) with the American tradition of buying by 'layaway'. Effectively instalments, where the last payment is made before the piece is despatched. Obviously, in the UK I'd have to have a consumer credit license to allow people to pay by instalments after delivery (because I'd be extending credit to a private individual), so it helps keep me on the right side of the law too. I can't see any reason that wouldn't work with hats too.
Anyway, I found the surveys to be very helpful, and quite encouraging.