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Wealthy tighten their belts, look for bargains

The window display at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York says “luxury,” but some signs inside the store say “90 percent off.”

Associated Press

The window display at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York says “luxury,” but some signs inside the store say “90 percent off.”

NEW YORK — The rich are tightening their belts, too. Even if it's still a Gucci.

Faced with the sharpest decline in net worth in nearly 50 years, wealthy Americans are re-evaluating their priorities and slashing their spending at a rate unseen in decades — a move that could have dire consequences for the economy, luxury stores and high-end brands.

In response to the increasingly subdued shopping mood that began late last year, luxury brands are cutting their inventory, changing their assortment of products and tweaking their advertising message.

"Fewer, better things," suggests diamond jewelry giant De Beers Group in an ad campaign launched last month.

If conspicuous consumption was a hallmark of the luxury days of old, those still shopping 'til they drop are taking a more low-key approach, apparently out of deference to the new breed of have-nots.

Luxury sales overall dropped 34.5 percent in the first week of December from the same period a year ago, according to SpendingPulse, a data service provided by MasterCard Advisors, and were down 23 percent in the five weeks ending Dec. 6.

Such behavior differs dramatically from even just a year ago, when luxury stores couldn't keep up with the wealthy's appetite for extravagance. A-listers wanted $5,000 handbags, not the $500 versions they bought in the past.

It may be hard to sympathize with their plight, but millionaires saying no to that third pair of high-priced heels is worrisome for us all, say economists, because it deepens the consumer spending trough.

But such over-the-top spending isn't prudent anymore. Americans' wealth fell 4.7 percent to $56.5-trillion in the third quarter from the second, the biggest decline since the second quarter of 1962, according to Scott Hoyt of Moody's Economy.com.

Luxury lull

Here's a look at some of the trends starting to emerge in the luxury world:

. DISCOUNTING: Boutiques on Madison Avenue in Manhattan are offering 70 to 80 percent off and Saks Fifth Avenue is discounting up to 90 percent.

. WHO'S CUTTING BACK: Aspirational luxury customers with salaries of about $150,000 began cutting back a year ago. Single-digit millionaires, who account for 30 percent of sales and 60 percent of the customer base, pulled back sharply starting in March. Those with net worths above $10-million started scaling back in September.

. IMPLICATIONS: The economy depends on spending by the wealthy because of their dominance in discretionary purchases, and deep discounting on luxury brands could condition shoppers to spend only a certain amount on designer handbags and clothing.

Wealthy tighten their belts, look for bargains 12/22/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 2:17pm]
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