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Wiser, cautious luxury retail buyers are back in the game

The SRX SUV is selling quickly at Ed Morse Cadillac in Tampa. At the Ed Morse in Brandon, overall sales for April were about triple what they were a year ago. Luxury spending is up in other sectors, too.

EDWARD LINSMIER | Times

The SRX SUV is selling quickly at Ed Morse Cadillac in Tampa. At the Ed Morse in Brandon, overall sales for April were about triple what they were a year ago. Luxury spending is up in other sectors, too.

High-end retailers Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus are reporting stronger sales. At the Ed Morse car lot in Brandon, Cadillac sales in April nearly tripled from a year ago, while its sister dealership in Tampa is having a run on the high-end SRX SUVs.

And Jackie Colson-Miller, a South Tampa real estate agent dealing in luxury properties, has trouble finding enough houses in the $1.2 million and up range to satisfy deep-pocketed, out-of-town buyers.

The luxury buyer is coming back.

Perhaps wiser, decidedly pickier and more practical. But back in the game, nonetheless.

And with the combination of plenty of disposable income and plenty of bargains, the wealthy are best positioned to lead any nascent recovery of consumer spending. Last week, retailers reported tepid sales for May, up less than 3 percent, with luxury spending one of the few bright spots.

Luxury sales, in fact, grew more than three times faster last month than overall retail sales, according to a report from MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse.

In their annual survey of affluence and wealth in the United States, American Express Publishing and Harrison Group predicted the first comeback year in three years in retail spending. That infusion, it predicts, will be confined to the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans. "The remaining 90 percent of the population will spend either the same — or less — than they have been spending since the Great Recession began in 2007," the survey found.

Mark Zandi, chief economist with Moody's Analytics, said high-income households are spending more freely because they're feeling more relaxed.

"There's been a very significant change in their collective psyche over the past year," he said. "Some of the recent spending is unleashing pent-up demand. They put off spending on things they normally would have and are now making those purchases."

As evidence, Zandi examines the savings rate of the top 20 percent of earners. At the peak of the recession, in a climate of plunging stock prices and home prices, the savings rate for that group peaked near 15 percent. Now, it's back down to 4 or 5 percent.

Any luxury spending comeback, however, has to be viewed in context. It's really a parting of the clouds that hung over the steepest sales decline in luxury goods in decades.

It's also important to understand that there are two types of luxury shoppers: One category, the truly wealthy, had cut back partly because excessive consumption is seen as bad taste in tough times. Less likely to return to their old ways are the borderline wealthy who splurge on luxury to look and feel more affluent; many of them were sidelined by a lack of discretionary income and tighter credit.

The recovery of luxury malls and retailers such as Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue is only partly due to the affluent classes feeling more confident. Analysts attribute rising sales in high-end stores to merchants trying new tactics: They prodded the big-name designer brands to drop their entry-level prices range, cut inventory sharply so more sells at full price and bundled in features that make purchases appear more enticing, like free gift with purchase, buy-one-get-one-at-half-price or features like cell phone pockets.

Also, luxury spending had fallen so sharply since the easy credit boom ended, big sales gains are much easier to attain.

"Luxury has come back, but not to what it was in 2007. And clearly Florida has bounced back for us, although it is still going to take more time," said Bill Taubman, chief operating officer of Taubman Centers Inc., which has a major interest in five Florida malls including International Plaza in Tampa.

"A lot of it is pent-up demand because the customer got tired of shopping in her closet. But the truly iconic luxury brands have responded with lowered entry prices and market authenticity. In luxury that means (promoting) the quality, longevity and style they offer."

Some see the recent improvement as only a start.

"Of the 10 percent considered affluent shoppers, only the top 2 percent have continued spending, and there continues to be hesitancy to spend among the other 8 (percent)," said Chris Ramey, chairman of the Luxury Marketing Council of Florida, which includes yacht brokers, luxury auto dealers, fine jewelers and top-tier designer brand apparel retailers in its membership.

"With no sustained increase in hiring and half the state's homeowners underwater on their mortgages, where does an aspirational luxury shopper get the discretionary income to spend?"

For that top tier that is spending again, the more urgent economic questions are: How long will it last? And will it be strong enough to offset weak consumer spending by many who are struggling financially?

After all, Zandi points out, "it was the pullback by that (high-end) group that really was the key reason for the depth of the Great Recession. They just panicked."

Zandi said he believes the economy will stay on a slow recovery track, and middle America will return to the malls by this time next year. But he also acknowledges that the recent loosened spending by the rich may be fleeting.

The surge may not last more than six or nine months, particularly if the stock market pulls back sharply, he said.

If that's true, this is a window for retailers like Steve Barger to relish.

Barger, general manager of Ed Morse Cadillac's Tampa location, said he has been selling Cadillacs for 38 years, through many industry ups and downs, times when the company "lost our way" with the rise of imports.

Now is definitely one of those "up" times.

Buyers are more careful, taking three to four weeks to complete a sale instead of three or four days. Still, they are buying again, particularly models like the Cadillac SRX crossover SUV, available for about $40,000.

"Our SRXs are hot, hot. We sell three or four a day," Barger said.

He attributed part of the popularity to pricing. Even luxury buyers, he said, appreciate a good deal. He markets Cadillac as being similar in quality to BMW, Lexus and Mercedes, but a better value.

Real estate agent Colson-Miller painted a similar picture in the South Tampa luxury market where she specializes: Moneyed buyers are back, but cautious.

One high-end buyer from Pittsburgh recently sought her help; ditto, a couple from New York who were tired of that state's income taxes.

Last week, Colson-Miller met with a couple from Chicago tired of the weather; they were seeking a five-bedroom home with more than 4,000 square feet and required a downstairs guest room. "It was nearly impossible to find them that much to look at that was nice," she said.

Unlike some, she doesn't think buyers will retreat soon, fearful of another drop in home prices.

"I think people have realized that we've hit the bottom," she said.

Return of the bling

Last month was a strong one for e-commerce companies and luxury retailers, unlike other retail categories. Here's the how May sales compared with May 2009:

E-commerce up 13.7 percent

Luxury up 9.7 percent

Jewelry up 6.4 percent

Restaurants up 2.8 percent

Apparel down 3.7 percent

Source: MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse

Wiser, cautious luxury retail buyers are back in the game 06/04/10 [Last modified: Monday, June 7, 2010 5:38pm]

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