Wealthy Go Frugal This Holiday Amid Uneven U.S. Recovery

Last holiday season, literary agent Linda Chester bought herself a sheared sable fur coat and red evening gown, both from Ralph Rucci, and designer suede leggings. This season, the bicoastal fashion lover settled for costume jewelry earrings from SoHo designer Iradj Moini.

“I am definitely tightening my belt this year,” said Chester, who cited an uneven economic rebound and concerns over a possible stock-market bubble, as well as a desire to spend more on charity. “I really am not looking.”

It’s not just low-income shoppers who are pulling back on spending for loved ones and themselves this holiday season. Wealthy folks are watching their dollars, too.

While the most well-heeled shoppers still think nothing of dropping $4,600 on an Hermes tote, cracks have appeared in the $94 billion U.S. luxury market, especially for companies that cater to “Henrys” -- High Earners Not Rich Yet. Coach Inc. has said customers plan to spend less on gifts and that mall traffic fell sharply last month. Analysts predict Nordstrom Inc.’s fourth-quarter sales may grow less than half the year-ago pace of 6.1 percent. Tiffany & Co.’s third-quarter comparable sales in the Americas were barely higher. Even before Black Friday, Saks Inc., Neiman Marcus Group Inc. and Nordstrom offered 40 percent off on many brands.

With memories of the 2008 financial crash still fresh, some wealthy shoppers are questioning whether stock market gains to record highs are sustainable and cite conflicting reports about the economy, said Robin Lewis, a New York retail consultant.

Shrinking Bonuses

While the Federal Reserve reported yesterday that home and equity market gains spurred household wealth from July through September, the so-called wealth effect hasn’t resulted in a commensurate gain in spending. Some of the wealthiest will be less flush this year as Wall Street banks shrink bonuses. Goldman Sachs, along with the investment-banking divisions of six of its biggest U.S. and European rivals, allocated a collective 39 percent of revenue for compensation in the first nine months, down from 42 percent a year earlier.

“Most luxury shoppers understand the reports as net, not-positive,” Lewis said in an e-mail. “Since the luxury sector of smart, wealthy people are also captains of industry and finance, it will most certainly have a negative effect on their confidence and, therefore, spending.”

Last week, the Commerce Department reported that the U.S. economy expanded 3.6 percent in the third quarter, faster than initially estimated. Yet burgeoning inventories drove much of the growth, increasing the most in 15 years. If sales pick up this holiday season, retailers will be able to work through the pileup of merchandise. If not, chains may be forced to unload it at profit-pinching discounts.

Flash Sales

Luxury merchants may not battle for customers as hard as discounters such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and department-store chains like Macy’s Inc. Still, Saks and Neiman have been pushing pre-sales and flash sales online and ramping up targeted e-mails to shoppers, said Hana Ben-Shabat, a partner at A.T. Kearney Inc., a consulting firm.

“They’ll do well this season,” said Ben-Shabat, who is based in New York. “But they have to work hard for it.”

Coach, Nordstrom and Ralph Lauren Corp. have all trailed the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index’s 27 percent gain this year. While Tiffany shares have risen about twice as much as the S&P, the world’s second-largest jeweler last year generated 38 percent of its revenue in Asia, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Nordstrom fell 0.1 percent to $60.62 at 9:54 a.m., while Tiffany dropped 0.5 percent to $89.87 and Ralph Lauren gained 0.2 percent to $171.57.

Representatives for Tiffany, Coach and Nordstrom declined to elaborate on the companies’ previous comments.

‘Two Percenters’

Unity Marketing, a Stevens, Pennsylvania, research firm, divides American luxury consumers into “two percenters,” with household incomes of $250,000 and more, and Henrys, who earn $100,000 to $249,999 a year.

Even the wealthiest aren’t outspending Henrys the way they used to. Before the recession, the $250,000-plus crowd was spending as much as four times more on luxury goods than Henrys, said Pam Danziger, Unity Marketing’s president. Now they’re spending twice as much, she said.

“They’re very restrained and feeling very uncertain about their personal prospects and the economy at large,” she said.

In early October, Unity Marketing conducted an online survey of 1,200 affluent shoppers. Twenty five percent said they’ll spend less on holiday gifts this year than they did in 2012, while 60 percent said they plan to spend the same. Just 13 percent said they would spend more.

Half the respondents said the financial health of the country is worse now than it was three months ago.

Holiday Jaunt

Veteran Manhattan personal shopper Redman Maxfield, who last week outfitted a female client for a Palm Beach holiday jaunt, finds himself helping the wealthy stretch their dollars.

“All of my clients are conservative about money,” he said. “It’s still about need versus want.”

When buying for themselves, wealthy women more than ever before are mixing the most expensive designer goods with less costly alternatives, Maxfield said. The idea he promotes is to don a simple $400 dress, clasp a faux bracelet onto the wrist, and carry a beautiful $2,800 handbag, he said.

His clients have moved away from trendy items and in-your-face logos, and instead are looking for small brands no one has heard of, the kinds curated by Barneys New York Inc.

“Finding something unique that no one else has, that is the thing,” he said.

His male shoppers are being careful in their spending and going for top quality: suits from Brioni and Kiton, tuxedos from Ralph Lauren’s highest-priced black and purple labels, and other items from Turnbull & Asser, he said.

Inconclusive Economy

Justin Rosenblatt, a 40-year-old vice president of alternative programming at the CW Network, is being frugal this year because “the economy is inconclusive so I’d rather be smart than impetuous.

‘‘I’m just trying to save more money and look ahead to the future,” Rosenblatt said, adding that many of his friends are behaving in much the same way.

The current mood means premium brands rather than designer ones are resonating with many customers, Danziger said.

“Michael Kors is a very good example of a brand that is hitting the right notes in terms of quality and price because you don’t have to apologize for buying a $500 Michael Kors bag,” she said. “You have all the design sensibility that you get from a Gucci bag or a Louis Vuitton bag.”

The luxury consumer has woken up, Danziger said.

“So many luxury brands today are four, five, 10 times more expensive, but they are really not 10 times better than some of these premium brands,” she said.

Andrew Sacks, who runs his own New York ad agency and says his household income exceeds $250,000 a year, plans to spend about the same this holiday, though he’ll focus not on Cartier baubles. Instead, Sacks, 45, will buy less-known brands.

“Luxury retail has become so ubiquitous, it’s the same everywhere,” said Sacks, who isn’t reassured by the stock market advance. “It just feel disconnected from the rest of our country. It doesn’t seem like there are fundamentals in place for most of the country to support that.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.