U.S. 2 Percenters Trade Down With Post-Recession Angst

Jennifer Prentice, a medical-equipment saleswoman in Minneapolis, once had no qualms about dropping $600 or more for Gucci purses. Now she spends $300 for Coach Inc. bags and is filling in her Burberry wardrobe with pieces from J. Crew.

“The things we went through over the last couple of years definitely have an impact on what I am doing,” Prentice, 45, said in an interview. “I tend to be less frivolous now.”

While good times keep rolling for the super-wealthy, many Americans at the bottom end of the privileged group with incomes of $250,000 or more are thinking twice. These “two-percenters,” unnerved by the most recent recession, are trading down to less-expensive offerings from Coach Inc. and Ralph Lauren Corp. rather than pricier goods from Prada SpA and Giorgio Armani SpA. Even with the stock and real estate markets rebounding, they’re not draining their wealth again, and the shift may prove challenging for the highest-priced brands that can no longer lean on credit card-fueled aspirational customers.

“The rich have lost their exuberance,” said Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing, a luxury research firm. “They do not feel as wealthy. They increasingly feel that their wealth is threatened, real or not.”

An increasing share of America’s “ultra-affluent” consumers view themselves as middle-class and are spending like “Henrys,” which stands for High Earner Not Rich Yet, Danziger said. People in the latter category earn $100,000 to $249,999 a year, putting them in the top 20 percent by income, Danziger said.

Spending Falls

Ultra-affluents’ spending on personal and household luxuries as well as experiences such as travel but excluding autos, fell 19 percent last year to $96,568, the lowest in five years, Unity Marketing says. Spending on personal luxuries slid 26 percent, the biggest drop of any of the categories, to $32,283. The ultra-affluents’ spending peaked at $167,919 in 2010, driven by pent-up demand after the recession. Henrys’ spending retreated 8 percent to $34,958 last year.

Luxury spending in the Americas grew 5 percent on a constant-currency basis in 2012, slower than the 13 percent gain the previous year, Bain & Co. estimates. The Americas accounted for 31 percent of the 212 billion-euro ($274 billion) market, the consulting firm says.

Apparel and accessories brands on the way down with affluent consumers include Prada, Armani, PPR SA’s Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana Srl, Hermes International SCA and Gianni Versace SpA, Danziger said.

Names on the way up are Coach, Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors Holdings Ltd., Gap Inc.’s Banana Republic, J. Crew Group Inc. and Urban Outfitters Inc.’s Anthropologie, she said.

The turning tide is discernible in companies’ recent sales.

Slowing Growth

Gucci-owner PPR’s comparable luxury sales growth slowed to 8 percent in North America in the first quarter from 20 percent a year earlier. LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA’s sales growth excluding acquisitions and foreign-currency fluctuations shrank to 7 percent in the U.S. excluding Hawaii in the first quarter from 16 percent a year earlier. In contrast, Michael Kors in its most recent quarter posted a 41 percent comparable-store sales increase in North America, faster than the 38 percent gain a year earlier.

“The premium brands have really upped their game, competing more fiercely with the luxury brands,” said Danziger, whose consulting firm is based in Stevens, Pennsylvania.

Michael Kors shares have jumped 19 percent this year, and Coach has advanced 6 percent. LVMH has dropped 0.6 percent while PPR is up 23 percent, benefiting from divestitures of non-luxury retail units.

Strategic Buying

Affluent shoppers are being strategic, buying a few particular items from the luxury brands that give them the most pleasure and making trade-offs on the rest, Danziger said.

While mixing high- and low-priced fashions has been a trend for years, “it’s even more pronounced now,” said Milton Pedraza, chief executive officer of the Luxury Institute, a research firm in New York. Consumers are buying “high-quality yet low-cost products” so they can “splurge on the superb luxury product.

‘‘They are discerning to a fault these days,’’ he said.

Among these consumers is Jose Bandujo, the owner of an eponymous New York advertising agency, who estimates his spending on personal luxuries has declined as much as 20 percent because he’s investing in a home renovation.

‘‘I have to have a practical need,’’ said Bandujo, 49. ‘‘There are things still in my closet with labels that I never wore, and I find that appalling now.’’

Real Estate

The rich are channeling some of the money they’re saving into homes amid the perceived recovery of the housing markets, said Hana Ben-Shabat, a New York-based partner in the retail practice of the A.T. Kearney Inc. consulting firm.

‘‘Many affluent people are converting their money into real estate and things that have long-term investment returns and are spending less on having the latest Hermes handbag,’’ she said. ‘‘When they do have to buy a handbag, they go buy Coach.’’

She has one caveat: A small cadre of ultra high-net worth individuals, with $5 million and more in net assets, is insulated and not cutting back, she said.

Luxury consumers are shopping more for durability and quality rather than just the name on the label, said Jerome Jacques, a Malibu, California-based handbag designer.

‘‘A lot of people are tired of the vanity,’’ Jacques said. ‘‘They don’t want something that is bling-bling and gaudy. They want something really well-made, that doesn’t shine, and that has value.”

Functional Classics

Before the recession, Jacques produced seasonal collections of 20 designs that he distributed wholesale to now heavily saturated retailers like Macy’s Inc.’s Bloomingdale’s. These days, he’s engineering a perpetual collection of 10 classic and functional bags under a new line called “Article Indefini” that he wants to sell directly to consumers. A luxury handbag should cost $400 to $800, he said. A $7,000 Hermes bag is “ridiculous,” he said.

Lori Hirsch, an attorney from Basking Ridge, New Jersey, in her 40s, said she is among consumers buying fewer goods -- in her case one or two outfits a season versus five or six before the recession -- partly by stretching out her purchases.

“The economy is not as bounced-back as people make it out to be,” Hirsch said. “I continue to make purchases on an as-needed basis without being extravagant.”

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