Interesting discussion that's been taking place on the "high-end" status, or lack thereof, regarding AE.
I just have a few thoughts, and with a couple of them, I don't mean any offense.
I don't think AE considers themselves to be a "high-end" shoe company. I think they consider themselves to be a high quality shoe and strive to produce the highest quality they can while keeping prices as low as possible. These two goals are obviously at odds with each other, but I think AE balances them very well.
I do think that the status of the men's clothing/shoe industry has incidentally made AE a "high-end" shoe. The proliferation of cheap materials, cheap manufacturing methods, and cheap labor has skewed the spectrum in the negative direction substantially over the last several decades. As a result, shoes which are made using traditional methods and respectable materials are forced to be more expensive, and they often stand out visually, even to the uninformed masses. They may not know why they look nicer, but they can frequently tell that you have on more expensive shoes. I fully believe that in a poll of "average" men, AE would end up being ranked as a "high-end" shoe. Those of us who have been on SF long enough, and know about shoes, know that there are absolutely other brands that spend significantly more time, effort, and money in their finishing. Those additional costs get shifted to the consumer when it comes time to purchase them.
It is silly to forget that we are discussing a spectrum here. Saying that AE isn't a high end shoe simply because of the existence of better shoes available in the market isn't logical. Using that logic, there could only be one high-end product in any given product market, which we all know isn't true. High-end isn't synonymous with "king of the hill." Yes, there can only be one "best" but there can be many that are "better than most."
In a similar vein, saying that there can be many that are "better than most" is based on the principle of a Gaussian distribution. However, by saying that, I am using the assumption that the people in this discussion have a good understanding of the available options and can reasonably come to the same conclusion using abstract or theoretical thought. Under that assumption, it is reasonable to make such claims for purposes of illustration. However, the discussion remains abstract or theoretical because we haven't presented any scientifically derived data with which to make such claims. For statistics to have any teeth, it must first have dependable data as a foundation.
Here is where we insert Mark Twain's premise when he grouped statistics with "lies and damned lies." Using statistical jargon to make an argument sound more persuasive to those who are less informed amounts to employing proof by verbosity, or argument from authority. I think that it is reasonable to make claims about a subjective concept within a group of people who are on relatively equal footing in order to illustrate a point. Anything beyond that, however, is simply proving Twain's point. We can't make accurate claims using a Gaussian distribution, asserting how many standard deviations one shoe brand is from another, or even what the mean is, without hard objective data from which to calculate the distribution.
Statistics may have changed a lot since the mid-19th century, but I think that the reason many people's perception of it hasn't changed is because it is still used as a tool in rhetoric and for the purposes of bolstering an argument at the expense of the less informed individual in the argument. That will never change.