July 11 (Bloomberg) -- On the celebrated Place Vendome in Paris, the newest name in jewels is the world’s largest in bags.
Louis Vuitton, known for its laminated canvas handbags, has opened its first standalone watch and jewelry store at a time Europeans are tightening their belts. The goal: to bolster Vuitton’s image as a purveyor of high-end luxury goods, particularly among free-spending Chinese who have a particular affinity for necklaces and bracelets made in France.
As Vuitton products become more ubiquitous, the Place Vendome store “is an attempt to anchor the brand at the highest possible level,” said Luca Solca, global head of European equities at CA Cheuvreux. Owner LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA is a master, he said, “at navigating the thin line between becoming mass luxury and preserving desirability.”
The shop’s opening earlier this month, on the Paris square that’s home to the Ritz hotel and fine jewelers such as Van Cleef & Arpels, may also be an attempt by LVMH Chairman Bernard Arnault to challenge Cartier, the Paris-based maker of 750-euro ($924) wedding rings and 44,000-euro diamond necklaces owned by Cie. Financiere Richemont SA, LVMH’s biggest rival.
“Cartier and the appeal of the brand are one of the very few potential threats that LVMH has,” Solca said.
Vuitton, which Barclays Capital estimates had sales of 6.5 billion euros last year, is seeking new sources of revenue as mainly Chinese travelers prop up wilting local demand for its 410-euro Maryland red suede moccasins and 216-euro dog collars in Europe.
Sales of high-end watches have also slowed in recent months in China amid weaker economic growth in the world’s most populous nation, Hengdeli Holdings Ltd. said this week. Yet part of this can be attributed to consumers shopping abroad because of favorable currency fluctuations, according to Hengdeli Vice President Tan Li.
The two-story boutique, which has its own workshop, boasts a 9 million-euro diamond cut in the shape of Vuitton’s flower logo and a diamond-and-ruby encrusted ring called the Champs-Elysees that costs 75,000 euros, about 140 times the price of one of Vuitton’s bestselling totes, the 540-euro Neverfull.
Though Vuitton pushed into fine jewelry three years ago after introducing lower-priced bijoux in 2001 and Swiss-made watches in 2002, “opening such a store in Place Vendome is a sort of brand statement,” said Armando Branchini, founder of Milan-based consultant Intercorporate.
Place Vendome, in the heart of the French capital, has been occupied by some of Europe’s oldest and most expensive jewelers since Boucheron opened there in 1893. Now, brands including Blancpain, Piaget and LVMH-owned Chaumet have stores in the square overlooked by a statue of Napoleon atop a bronze column.
Entering the Temple
By joining them, Vuitton, which started as a trunk maker on an adjacent road in 1854, is “entering the temple,” said Branchini. “For the final consumer, the brand is going to be perceived in a more exclusive way.”
That’s important because the so-called absolute segment of the luxury market is growing faster than the “aspirational” part, where Vuitton’s leather goods are positioned, according to Bain. The location also helps differentiate Vuitton from other clothing and accessories makers that may have added bejeweled bracelets, Branchini said.
“Ultimately, the Louis Vuitton bags, purses and wallets have a far lower transaction value,” said Jonathan De Mello, head of retail consultancy at CBRE Group Inc. Having a dedicated watch and jewelry boutique “fits with their strategy of segmenting their customers in different stores,” he said.
Sales of watches and jewelry are set to outpace the luxury sector’s growth through 2014 after rising the fastest of all categories last year, Bain & Co. estimates. They are also two of the top three products on which Chinese travelers spend when visiting Europe, according to tourist shopping specialist Global Blue.
“Standing up to Cartier” may be another motive for the store as LVMH also invests in specialist watchmakers such as Zenith and jewelers like Bulgari, which it bought last year for 4.3 billion euros, said Solca.
Cartier, with a shop next door to the new Vuitton boutique, generated sales of about 4.3 billion euros in 2011, according to Rene Weber, an analyst at Bank Vontobel in Zurich. The jeweler, which has expanded into leather goods, is one of the watch and jewelry brands most likely to be purchased by Chinese shoppers, though Vuitton -- LVMH’s biggest and best-known label -- is the luxury brand they desire the most, according to Bain.
LVMH’s watch and jewelry division, which excludes Vuitton, posted revenue of 1.9 billion euros in 2011, or 8 percent of the total. Sales at the division climbed 17 percent in the first quarter of this year, excluding acquisitions and currency moves. That compares with 12 percent growth in fashion and leather goods sales, which fell in Spain, Italy and Greece on a local basis, LVMH Finance Director Jean-Jacques Guiony said April 18.
Like Galeries Lafayette, a department store near Place Vendome that attracts more visitors a day than the Eiffel Tower, and Vuitton’s flagship store on the Champs Elysees that shoppers wait outside to enter, the jewelry boutique will probably become another retail destination in Paris, according to De Mello.
While the increase in traffic may benefit all the stores in the area, the position of Vuitton next to Cartier and opposite PPR SA-owned Boucheron is a statement of intent, he said.
“They are their arch rivals in many respects,” he said. Vuitton “will compete for the same consumers when they” arrive in Place Vendome.
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