The Christmas Divide: Luxury Soars While Mass Still Struggles

This Christmas, luxury retailers are generating gains twice as high as mainstream retailers.

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NEW YORK — High-end retailers say aggressive post-Thanksgiving promotions on fall goods and strong sales of early pre-spring deliveries contributed to double-digit sales gains over the last five days as the luxury juggernaut keeps rolling along.

Holiday ’04 is so far seeing a sharp divide, with luxury retailers continuing to experience booming business while the mass channel, led by Wal-Mart, gets pinched by moderate department stores and their price promotions at one end and the dollar stores at the other. (For more on mass, see "Holiday Pulse: Discounters Challenged From Top, Bottom.")

Most importantly for the high end, retailers said consumers were not only shopping for gifts, but also for themselves. Bestsellers at specialty stores and boutiques ranged from the usual brooches, boots and bling to furs, footwear, eveningwear and pre-spring and cruise collections.

“There just doesn't seem to be a slowdown in the luxury market. It gets stronger and stronger,” said Shelley Cayman-Cox, an owner of family-run Cayman’s in Norman, Okla., specializing in designer, bridge and contemporary apparel and accessories. The store is seeing 20 percent gains, and this past weekend, sold a $5,000 diamond cross necklace from Jude Frances and several expensive precious stone pieces from John Hardy and Judith Ripka.

Luxury stores generally said the season is strong and expect holiday gains at least double what mainstream retailers are expected to record. On Wednesday, designer stores including Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys New York broke price as planned on fall goods, generating big traffic and sales.

The huge price discounts on luxury fall goods — typically 40 percent — had a twofold effect. Plenty of fall goods moved, but so did spring and cruise merchandise. Apparently, luxury consumers are thinking as much about buying gifts for themselves as for others. “Deliveries are definitely the key,” said Yildiz Blackstone, president of Luca Luca. “Last year, it wasn’t until mid-December when we got early spring shipments. But last week we received about 40 percent of our spring-summer deliveries.”

“The luxury customer is buying now from pre-spring what she’ll be wearing for Christmas and New Year’s,” added Diane Levbarg, executive vice president of Missoni.
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