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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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At Missoni and other stores on Madison Avenue early receipts of spring merchandise spark the business
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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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In years past, there wasn’t nearly as much pre-spring and resort available in time for the holiday. Many of Missoni’s bestsellers are from the resort collection that arrived about 10 days ago, including a handmade crocheted coat at $2,900, and a tweed group including a coat, priced at $2,440, a jacket for $1,945, and trousers at $925.

“Last season was good, and the year before was fabulous. But this season has started off brilliantly,” Levbarg said. Moreover, selling pre-spring now doesn’t dampen spring sales later, she added, since different merchandise from runway shows arrives in February. “I see it as complementary,” she said. Missoni had a 10 percent sales increase in November, and hopes for a 20 percent gain in December.

At Luca Luca, “The product category doing best is eveningwear,” said Blackstone. “Since Thanksgiving we sold out all of our long gowns and cocktail dresses, primarily in silk satin and Swarovski crystal, priced $1,000 to $2,500.” Last month’s spring-summer collection trunk show doubled the year-ago volume for the event. Bestsellers included a hand-embroidered silk cocktail dress for $4,500, with 10 pieces sold. Also, eight lavender strapless gowns with hand-embroidered flowers for $4,900 were sold. “We saw an incline in sales right after the election,” Blackstone said. “I think people are feeling more settled and eager to spend most definitely for themselves, or they’re sending their husbands in to buy them their holiday gift from pre-spring.”

Bergdorf Goodman said sales are strongest with Vera Wang and Chanel cruise merchandise, and with such unusual pieces as Devi Krolle python bags, priced at $1,500, as well as one-of-a-kind items from Verdura and Kara Ross. This season, “the customer is even more interested in exclusive or one-of-a-kind items,” said Robert Burke, Bergdorf’s vice president and senior fashion director.

Deborah Weinswig, equity analyst with Citigroup Smith Barney, predicted that luxury retailers would generate 6 to 8 percent comp-store sales gains for the holiday season, compared with 3 to 4 percent for broadline retailers. “Bringing newness in is unbelievably important, more so than in the past,” she said. “The appetite for new products has continued to evolve. We are on a strong fashion cycle right now and higher-end retailers are doing a better job of translating that. A year ago, people were happy to wear black and charcoal gray. We really didn’t get color until last spring. Now people want something that looks more exciting, more fun — anything over the top.”
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Currently, more than half of what’s on the selling floors of luxury stores is holiday merchandise. Spring goods represent 15 to 20 percent of the merchandise, and fall goods another 15 to 20 percent, Weinswig estimated.

At Rizik’s in downtown Washington, furs, including sheared mink coats — like a three-quarter-length Michael Kors design for $3,000 or a private label reversible quilted barn jacket for $4,000 — are stoking holiday business, said president Maxine Rizik. She said sales began slowly after Thanksgiving, “but it’s picking up more as the season progresses.”

Peter Marx, president of Saks Jandel in Chevy Chase, Md., said eveningwear sales have been “very strong” and the focus of trunk shows and personal appearances. Marx said since spring there have been double-digit sales increases month-to-month and year-over-year.

The Neiman Marcus flagship in Dallas had its best results ever Friday due to its annual party for members of InCircle, its frequent buyer club. Buying was so frenzied that staffers had to hold selections from customers and wait until the next morning to ring them up for later delivery. “They were buying everything,” said Shelle Bagot, vice president and general manager of the store. “It was the luxury part of Christmas — furs and precious jewelry. Apparel, which is usually not strong this quarter, was very strong, plus all accessories and men’s business across the board. Luxury is here and people are buying.” About 1,000 people came to the party, where club members received double points for their purchases.

At Jeffrey, a designer store in Atlanta and New York, sales were up 20 percent this past weekend and are seen maintaining that pace for the duration of the season, said Jeffrey Kalinsky, owner. He said early spring and resort groups have performed well, driven by color, prints and items. A bright yellow heavy cotton jacket by Marni, at about $765, sold five out of six units in the past week.

At Giuseppe Zanotti, a designer shoe and handbag boutique in Bal Harbour Shoppes in Miami, traffic and sales for the past two weekends set records for the eight-year-old store, said Philippe Goureau, owner. Shoes priced from $400 to $700, with novelty and uniqueness, are selling best. A sandal with a crystal scorpion ornament, priced at $675, sold more than 10 pairs this weekend. “Usually, Thanksgiving weekend is strong, then things slow down until Dec. 22 or so. But not this year,” said Goureau. “We are now selling as much as we do during the height of the season.”
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Kitson in Los Angeles said its sales for the weekend were double those of a year ago. On Saturday, Paris Hilton came to sign bottles of her new perfume, priced at $49. All 75 bottles sold out. Sunday saw a double-digit gain, despite rainstorms.

At Ron Herman in the Fred Segal complex, sumptuous cashmere sweaters swept off the shelves along with ponchos, brooches, chain necklaces and anything with sparkle. But the classic Juicy Couture tracksuit for its fifth year in a row remains the bestseller. “It’s a given gift — if you’re not sure, just give them,” said John Eshaya, the store’s women’s buyer.

Some stores, however, have found less success. Traffic was only moderate at the Trina Turk stores in L.A. and Palm Springs, but sales were still up over last year, said designer and owner Trina Turk. “It doesn’t look like Christmas yet” because customers were still buying so many tweed jackets and silk charmeuse shirts for themselves, not the usual smaller, gift items.

— With contributions from Georgia Lee, Atlanta; Rusty Williamson and Holly Haber, Dallas; Joanna Ramey, Washington, and Michelle Dalton Tyree, Los Angeles