Spending for luxury items shows marked improvement

Nordstrom has a waiting list for a Chanel sequined tweed coat with a price tag of $9,010. Neiman Marcus has sold out in almost every size of Christian Louboutin "Bianca" platform pumps, at $775 a pair. Mercedes-Benz said it sold more cars last month in the United States than it had in any July in five years.

Even with the economy in a funk and many Americans pulling back on spending, the rich are again buying designer clothing, luxury cars and about anything that catches their fancy. Luxury goods stores, which fared much worse than other retailers in the recession, are more than recovering — business is zooming. Many high-end businesses are even able to mark up, rather than discount, items to attract customers who equate quality with price.

"If a designer shoe goes up from $800 to $860, who notices?" said Arnold Aronson, managing director of retail strategies at the consulting firm Kurt Salmon, and the former chairman and chief executive of Saks.

The rich do not spend quite as they did in the free-wheeling period before the recession, but they are closer to that level.

The luxury category has posted 10 consecutive months of sales increases compared with the year earlier, even as overall consumer spending on categories like furniture and electronics has been tepid, according to the research service MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse. In July, the luxury segment had an 11.6 percent increase, the biggest monthly gain in more than a year.

What changed? Mostly, the stock market, retailers and analysts said, as well as a good bit of shopping psychology. Even with the sharp drop in stocks last week, the Dow Jones is up about 80 percent from its low in March 2009.

"Our business is fairly closely tied to how the market performs," said Karen W. Katz, the president and chief executive of Neiman Marcus Group. "Though there are bumps based on different economic data, it's generally been trending in a positive direction."

Caroline Limpert, 31, an entrepreneur in New York, says she is happy to spend on classic pieces, like the Yves Saint Laurent tote she has in both chocolate and black, but since the recession, she avoids conspicuous items.

"If you have the wherewithal to spend, you never want to be showy about it," she said.

The recent earnings reports of some luxury goods retailers and automobile companies show just how much the high-end shopper has been willing to spend again.

Last week LVMH, which owns expensive brands like Louis Vuitton and Givenchy, reported sales growth in the first half of 2011 of 13 percent to 10.3 billion euros, or $14.9 billion.

BMW last week said it more than doubled its quarterly profit from a year ago as sales rose 16.5 percent; Porsche said its first-half profit rose 59 percent.

Luxury retailers' success stands in stark contrast to the retailers who cater to average Americans.

Apparel stores are holding near fire sales to get people to spend. Wal-Mart is selling smaller packages because some shoppers do not have enough cash on hand to afford multipacks of toilet paper. Retailers are nudging prices up by just pennies, worried they will lose customers if they do anything more.

Spending for luxury items shows marked improvement 08/06/11 [Last modified: Friday, August 5, 2011 9:43pm]

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