by Christina Binkley
Bentleys and Hermes bags are selling again. Yet the wealthiest Americans are emerging from the financial downturn as different consumers than they were.
Lyndie Benson says she now mentally calculates the "price per wear" of designer clothing. As the wife of saxophonist Kenny G, Ms. Benson, a photographer, can afford what she wants. She used to make a lot of impulse purchases, she says. But when shopping in Malibu, Calif., recently, she stopped herself before buying a gray Morgane Le Fay suit she'd tried on. "I walked outside and thought, 'Hmmm, I don't really love it that much,'" she says with contentment.
A number of surveys released in the past six weeks suggest Ms. Benson's new selectiveness is widespread among the wealthiest Americans. Though many of these people might seem unscathed by the financial crisis -- they didn't lose their homes, jobs or retirement savings -- they were deeply affected by what took place around them. "If you're conscious at all, it just seeps in," Ms. Benson says.
What's showing up in the latest research is a broad-based caution -- a sudden aversion to salespeople, a tepid response to ads focused on brand images, and a new interest in price-shopping. In Harrison Group's first-quarter survey of consumers with a median income of $275,000, 38% said they wait for items to go on sale, versus 31% in 2010.
Indeed, obtaining discounts on luxury goods has become a competitive sport among many well-to-do consumers, including Jim Taylor, vice chairman of the Waterbury, Conn.-based Harrison Group. Though he is wealthier this year than last, he recently spent a week comparison-shopping for a suit. He ultimately bought his Michael Kors suit on Overstock.com for $185.
Laurence Geller, CEO of the luxury-resort-owning Strategic Hotels & Resorts, told me recently that his favorite place to shop is the Nordstrom Rack discount outlet in Chicago. Harrison Group researchers found Costco and Target were the favorite stores of the wealthiest Americans.
In fact, one time-honored tenet of the luxury industry -- that discounted prices lower products' prestige -- appears to no longer be true, according to several studies. A survey released in April by the American Affluence Research Center, a luxury consultant based in Alpharetta, Ga., found that 60% of respondents said discounts didn't affect their opinion of brands.
Items the rich do value at full price are one-of-a-kind clothes and accessories and experiences that create fond memories. Weekend getaways and vacations were the top two things the wealthy intended to spend more money on, Harrison Group says.
The new luxuries are things that are in limited supply and have an emotional quality, rather than just a high price tag. When I asked New York socialite Olivia Chantecaille about her luxury shopping, she cited a new Hermes Birkin bag -- and a perfect mango she found in Paris. She and her husband have also been shopping a lot at Brunello Cucinelli, an Italian brand known for making J. Crew-style clothes such as cargo pants and comfy sweaters out of deluxe materials such as cashmere. Luxury may be back, but bling isn't.
The affluent are less trusting of brands than a few years ago. That makes sense: When Saks and other stores slashed prices on luxury goods in winter 2008-2009, shoppers got an inkling of the outsized markups on $10,000 handbags.
Consumers are also less influenced by brands' marketing. Harrison Group annually asks wealthy people if they agree with the statement: "I am willing to spend more for designer brands because they are the most stylish and fashionable." In the first quarter of 2008, 51% of respondents agreed. Three years later, 32% agree.
Yet 82% say they are happy with the way they look. "They don't need your brand to feel like they look good," Mr. Taylor told a group of luxury executives last month.
Nor do they want salespeople hammering away at them. Only 2% said they trust salespeople -- down from nearly 50% four years ago.
Part of this may be a reaction to the corporate push of commodity luxury. Ikram Goldman, the owner of the Ikram store in Chicago, says clients these days covet things that aren't mass-produced. She cites Rodarte, which makes artful designs in tiny quantities, as a label that has benefited from new tastes. "They don't feel like they're a dime a dozen," she says. "Our customers are desperate for that."
Christophe Georges, chief operating officer of Bentley Motors Inc., says his clients are increasingly distrustful of corporate marketing. He types his own emails to them, rather than using automated customer-outreach programs. "We are a little amateurish," he says, "and that's a good thing."
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