Roger, rest assured, spending more than $200 on a pair of leather shoes is very special and aspirational for 99% of men out there, even on this forum, some of the expectations on AE finishing are very unrealistic at times.
We, among others here, are lucky to own and experimence even more higher end premium shoes, so relatively speaking, the allure of AE isn't what it was.
No doubt that for the "masses" as referred to previously, a $200 shoe purchase is indeed an outlier. And you make a fair point about our perception being impacted by exposure to, and ownership of higher end shoes. But in my case, I have been an AE customer for nearly a quarter century. And I have made purchases of their product as recently as this year, notwithstanding that the bulk of my purchases are indeed now from higher end brands. So I don't think it is a case for me of having "moved beyond" the brand, and now looking back - and down - upon it. I feel there has been a shift over time in how I perceive the brand (again, as distinct from the product) that very likely flows from the way the company has managed the brand. Beacause I really don't think any less of the products themselves.