In defiance of the lyrics of an old song that says, "The rich get rich and the poor get poorer," luxury retailers and their landlords report that the rich are stepping back from shopping at luxury stores right now. The slowdown in sales, seen for some time at mid priced chains, is affecting higher end retailers as well, according to recent quarterly reports and a panel of experts at a retail real estate conference in New York.
Although Tiffany & Co. reported sales increases, the gains are from overseas stores and its New York City flagship, which is benefiting significantly from tourists from abroad who benefit from the low dollar. In its most recent quarter, Neiman Marcus reported a 2.5 percent decline among stores open for a year or more, in comparison with the same quarter of 2007.
"For the first time, we're seeing a slight softening in the luxury market," said Steven Greenberg, a leasing consultant based in Hewlett, NY who represents a number of luxury chains. "A lot of aspirational people are good luxury shoppers. For $400, you can buy a small handbag at Louis Vuitton. Those are the customers we're seeing affected right now."
Yet owners of high end shopping centers reported that their projects remain strong because of their location, opportunities for expansion, and a healthy tourist business. "The markets where we do have luxury and better properties are some of the best in the world," said Anne Singleton, VP of luxury leasing for the Macerich Co., Santa Monica, CA, which owns such high end properties as Scottsdale Fashion Square near Phoenix and Tysons Corner Center outside Washington, DC.
"The San Francisco Bay area is still great, as is Southern California. Phoenix has proven itself as a luxury market, though not as mature," she added,
"The deBeers and Harry Winstons want stores in the right locations," added Debra Gunn Downing, executive marketing director of South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, CA.
"Another critical component is merchandise, one that developers do not control," said William Taubman, COO of Taubman Centers, a shopping center owner based in Bloomfield Hills, MI. "Developers are in the business of leasing and presenting retailers."
"If retailers are doing their jobs, they can continue to attract the more affluent shopper. Where there is newness, people will pay," Taubman said. "No one is questioning the cost of an iPhone."
In addition, these retailers also have a, "secret weapon," according to Greenberg. That is outlet stores. "For Coach and Polo, it's a windfall," he noted.
In addition, centers with a strong tourism base have something of a cushion, as the weak dollar is encouraging travelers from Europe, Asia, South America and even Mexico and Canada to take advantage of U.S. goods. Though the numbers are impossible to track, center managers report anecdotal evidence of increased numbers of affluent shoppers from Canada and Mexico, in particular, taking advantage of a favorable currency exchange.
"Because the hotels are so inexpensive to them, people are bringing empty suitcases," said Kate Cavaliere, senior manager of tourism for Macerich. And property management has been working hard to promote the projects to tour operators and discriminating travelers, expanding on a trend of several years.
"We have always been a strong destination for tourists, and we spend a lot of time cultivating them," South Coast Plaza's Downing said.
Developers are creating packages that feature private fashion shows and extra services. South Coast Plaza will even close a store for a couple of hours for the most elite shoppers to browse privately. The lesson: even the wealthiest shoppers like something extra.
"Everyone likes a special offer. And both Carmel Plaza and Scottsdale Fashion Square have personal shoppers who take care of their every need," Cavaliere said. "They just love that."
The result is that the better centers remain well leased, though rents are becoming more flexible, Greenberg said. Taubman reported strong leasing at his centers, and South Coast Plaza boasts a 98 percent occupancy level, with several high end tenants, including luxury jewelers, including Harry Winston and deBeers, as well as designers, Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein, opening this year.
That continued expansion allows the luxury centers the chance to avoid compromising the integrity of the project by leasing to lesser space, Taubman added. And all emphasize that this is just another retail cycle, and that smart companies will take advantage.
"There's a healthy regeneration going on," Greenberg said.
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