Shoppers have a new mantra this year: Treat yourself.
Stuck at home and spending far less on travel, experiences and dining out, consumers are trading up on everything from designer handbags to diamond jewellery, according to industry executives and market-research firms.
The splurging defies the norms of past economic downturns, when consumers traded down to less-expensive items. And it isn’t only the well-off taking part. Less-affluent shoppers are buying items like premium spaghetti sauce or salon-worthy shampoo that was previously out of reach or thought to be not worth the price before the coronavirus pandemic forced people to curtail activities and isolate.
Stephanie Moon bought a Chloé handbag on sale for around A$890 this summer as a reward for signing her first client to her newly launched consulting firm. The 38-year-old San Francisco resident said she doesn’t usually buy designer bags, but felt like she could afford one now.
“I’m saving so much money, because I’m not going anywhere or doing anything,” she said. “Normally, I’d treat myself to a night out with my girlfriends, but that wasn’t an option this year.”
Millions of Americans remain out of work, and jobless claims are at their highest level since September. Yet despite some signs of slowing growth in November, retail spending has been strong relative to the broader economic outlook, boosted by a surge in online shopping. The National Retail Federation predicts holiday sales will rise 3.6% to 5.2%. Shoppers have been loading up on Christmas decorations, which are in short supply, as they try to brighten dreary, pandemic days.
After years of watching consumers, especially young ones, shift their spending to experiences, retailers across the spectrum say they have noticed more splurging on things, from luxury chains like Neiman Marcus Group Inc. and Saks Fifth Avenue to Macy’s Inc. and Signet Jewelers Ltd., owner of the Jared chain.
“Over the past few years, consumers have been making choices, ‘Do I take a trip to Rome or buy a handbag?’ ” said Marc Metrick, the chief executive officer of Saks Fifth Avenue. “This year, the decision has been eliminated.”
Mr Metrick said the biggest burst of demand is from shoppers who crave luxury products but can’t regularly afford them.
Neiman Marcus Chief Executive Geoffroy van Raemdonck said wealthy shoppers are buying more-expensive jewellery, shoes and handbags. “The same customer who would have bought one handbag last year is buying two this year, or is buying a more-expensive bag,” Mr. van Raemdonck said.
Neiman Marcus, which emerged from bankruptcy in September, has also attracted “entry-level” consumers who rarely, if ever, shopped with the luxury chain before Covid-19, he said. To appeal to them, it recently announced a partnership with payments company Affirm to offer instalment payments over six to 36 months at no extra charge.
NPD Group Inc. found that customers across various income levels, from those making less than $25,000 a year to those making more than $100,000 annually, are spending more on retail purchases than they did a year ago. Notably, for lower-income consumers, that spending didn’t dissipate after the stimulus checks ran out this summer.
“The growth rate in retail sales at the low end is higher than at the high end,” said Marshal Cohen, NPD’s chief industry adviser. “Consumers are gilt gifting, sending bigger, better gifts and rewarding themselves.”
Signet’s Jared chain is seeing the most growth at the highest price points, including items costing more than US$5,000, according to Bill Brace, Signet’s chief marketing officer. At Jared, sales of 2-carat loose diamonds and luxury watches are up 30% from Nov. 1 through mid-December, compared with the same period a year ago. Over the same period, sales of 1.25-carat diamond stud earrings have climbed 40% compared with last year.
Mr Brace said sales in those categories are growing at a rate of two to four times Signet’s overall sales growth in the most recent quarter. The company also owns the Kay Jewelers, Zales and Piercing Pagoda chains.
“Women are looking for zoom-worthy jewellery,” Mr Brace said. “They are going bigger on diamond studs.” He added that one Signet customer in Colorado recently bought three special-edition watches that cost more than US$10,000 each. “It’s unusual for someone to buy three at one time,” he said.
Macy’s customers are buying more-expensive jewellery, handbags and sleepwear, with shoppers spending more on each item than they did on similar purchases in the past, according to a spokeswoman. At the company’s Bloomingdale’s chain, affluent customers are snapping up luxury products.
“It’s not just because people are buying the snob apparel,” said Tony Spring, Bloomingdale’s CEO. “People realize you can have really nice things that don’t come close to costing what experiences cost.”
The strong demand has allowed some luxury brands to raise some prices, according to Erwan Rambourg, HSBC Holdings PLC’s global co-head of consumer and retail research. This spring, Louis Vuitton raised prices about 8% globally, while Chanel instituted a roughly 5% price increase, he said.
A Chanel spokesman said the brand, like most other luxury labels, regularly adjusts prices to reflect changes in production costs, raw-material prices and currency fluctuations, and also to help avoid price discrepancies between countries. Louis Vuitton declined to comment.
“Since Covid hit, you’ve had a tendency from consumers to buy less, but buy better,” Mr Rambourg said. “Unlike after 9/11, which made spending on luxury seem vulgar and inappropriate, today there is no stigma.”
Sarah Johnson has been buying Givenchy lipstick, Chanel blush, and Yves Saint Laurent eye shadow, often spending $200 in one shot. Before the pandemic, the 52-year-old New York City resident, who works in public relations, would have been satisfied with drugstore brands.
Now she is considering buying a designer handbag as a holiday gift for herself. “I would never have bought a designer bag in the past, but maybe I’ll use the money I saved for vacation to buy that Balenciaga bag I’ve always wanted,” she said, referring to the brand’s bags, which cost upward of $1,000.
Shoppers of all incomes are also trading up in everyday purchases like bottled water and spaghetti sauce, according to IRI, a market research firm that tracks $1.1 trillion in consumer-products spending.
“We expected low-income shoppers to buy more value brands,” said Krishnakumar Davey, president of IRI’s Strategic Analytics practice. “But they are buying higher-end products.”
Roy Cohen says he is saving $2,000 a month since he stopped paying rent on his Manhattan office in June. The 65-year-old career counsellor cancelled his vacation and is dining out less.
Instead, the East Hampton, N.Y., resident says he is donating more to charity and splurging on things like premium olive oil. In the past, he said he would have bought the generic version at Costco Wholesale Corp.
“I’m very value-oriented,” Mr Cohen said. “Before, I never would have thought expensive olive oil was worth the money.”
Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual
Passionate about both decor and travel? Design industry pros are leading global tours to share their secret shopping sources—and help you score one-of-a-kind pieces.
WHEN MELANIE BURNS of Oklahoma City first entered the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, she was stunned by its sheer size and the pathways winding through its tented structures like a tangle of yarn. Though well-traveled and an old hand at hunting one-of-a-kind objets, she’d never experienced such an onslaught of potential riches. “The bazaar is intimidating,” she said, “the size of about five football fields.”
She had expert allies, however: Clare Louise Frost and Elizabeth Hewitt of Tamam, a lifestyle brand and Manhattan store specialising in Turkish antiques and their own collections. The duo led Ms. Burns to a shop layered deep behind other shops. “It was no more than about 14 feet square, and stacked high with the most beautiful hand-woven vintage tapestries I’ve ever seen,” Ms. Burns recalled. “I would never have tackled the place without these women. They are walking encyclopedias, they speak the language and when you shop with them, you don’t overpay.”
Ms. Frost, who calls the bazaar “her second home,” lived in Istanbul for nine years, and her business partners, Ms. Hewitt and Hüseyin Kaplan, still live there. Together they host trips to Turkey, capped at 14 participants, all eager to buy décor to take back home. Overseas shopping sprees like this are an increasingly popular new category of travel. Interior-design pros immerse travellers in a country’s culture and guide them to fabulous finds, whether an ornate vintage camel bag from Turkey or a contemporary French sculpture.
Indagare, a travel company in Manhattan, is seeing a growing market for overseas shopping trips. The 30 Insider Journey trips it ran in 2022, including seven design-centred jaunts, drew 540 travellers, twice as many as in 2019. Sicily, Japan and Mallorca are locales Indagare is eyeing for future design trips. Penta, a magazine that, like The Wall Street Journal, is published by Dow Jones & Co., has a partnership with Indagare to organise trips.
“Covid taught us we need to go when we have the opportunity,” said Grant K. Gibson, a San Francisco interior designer who himself has led eight trips to India and two to Morocco and is adding excursions to Egypt, Mexico and Turkey.
Trips are as cultural as they are commercial. Before Mr. Gibson’s group of 10 globetrotters start looking for linens or bargaining for bowls, they tour Jaipur by electric rickshaw and visit a textile museum. “I want them to understand the history and know where design ideas come from,” he said. Cynthia Smith, a biotech exec from San Francisco who traveled with Mr. Gibson to Morocco, came home with pottery in a vibrant green glaze unique to Tamegroute, a village that edges the Sahara. “Everyone asks me about the vase, and I have a story to tell about Tamegroute pottery,” she said. “It gives character to my house.”
The packages don’t come cheap—from around $4,000 to $18,000 (not including flights) depending on location and length—but offer you insider access. Designer Chloe Mackintosh of Boxwood Avenue Interiors in Reno, Nev., is leading her first trip this year to parts of Italy and France she knows well. One focus will be the weekend antique markets in L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue, in southeast France, but she’ll also introduce guests to local artisans, including a fifth-generation ceramist. Her group will take a pottery-making class to understand the process behind the product.
Known as “the huntress” because of her many years buying and selling vintage furniture, Ariene C. Bethea says people began asking her to lead a trip so they could hunt alongside her. The owner of Dressing Rooms Interiors, a shop and design studio in Charlotte, N.C., teamed with TrovaTrip to create a journey to the Paris flea markets this May. With Ms. Bethea’s input, the Portland, Ore., group-travel managers lined up accommodations, vendors, translators and tickets to museums. “I plan to help my guests shop, give them ideas and help them learn to tell stories in a space,” said Ms. Bethea, known for her playful use of colours, bold patterns and culturally inspired designs.
Lodging on these guided forays offers design cred, too. Ms. Mackintosh has reserved an entire 16-room château in the French countryside for just 12 people. Tamam’s Istanbul guests stay in a marble-floored hotel that was a late 19th-century Ottoman bank—with a vault that doubles as a wine cellar—and for excursions to Cappadocia, a region in central Turkey, they bed down in a traditional cavelike home carved out of soft rock.
On a trip to the South of France with Los Angeles-based designer Kathryn M. Ireland, visitors stay in Ms. Ireland’s farmhouse near Toulouse. Her trademark fabrics and colourful Bohemian and English-country style are on display in every bedroom lamp shade and living room chair. “Guests shop my house, and then I point them in the right direction to buy similar things,” she said. Ms. Ireland has been leading groups (a maximum of 10 people) for over a decade, taking them to neighbours’ villas, antique markets and out-of-the-way bakeries and bee yards.
Abby Landers first visited Ms. Ireland’s home as a high-school senior, traveling with her mother. Now five years out of college and living in Boston, she recently returned. “Kathryn embraced us, and she has been a mentor for me ever since.” Inspired by that first trip, Ms. Landers earned a master’s degree in interior architecture, and her current boss is someone she met on that trip. “You’re there for a week, and it’s a whirlwind of meeting artists and artisans, all friends of Kathryn’s.”
Kirstan Barnett, a tech investor from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., traveled to Tangier with Melissa Biggs Bradley, founder of Indagare. Ms. Barnett was particularly moved by dinner at the 300-year-old, whitewashed, riad-style residence of Jamie Creel and Marco Scarani, two of the many designers she met at private events. The home was so richly layered and eclectic, she said, it inspired her to approach her own décor more bravely and reject the notion that a room must adhere to one style.
Some pros who organise such tours offer itinerary planning to folks who don’t want to travel with strangers. Mr. Gibson recently created a program for a group of four going to Jaipur. Though he won’t be joining them, he’s chosen the lodging and booked the restaurants and the experiences.
Travelers laser-focused on in-the-know shopping minus the touring can hire Chicago-based Skin Interior Design in cities such as London, Paris and Milan. The company arranges excursions so clients are shown exactly what they want—whether French midcentury chairs or Venetian-glass chandeliers. “We have an education in art history and antiques, and we help find pieces that keep value,” said Lauren Lozano Ziol, one of the founders. A recent two-day antique-furniture and art expedition in London cost $10,000.
How to get all the booty home? Mr. Gibson advises guests to travel with at least one empty suitcase. Bulky items can be packed and airfreighted home using DHL or FedEx. (Most carriers will pick up at the hotel.) Some vendors ship direct to the States from their stores at reasonable rates. For those who travel with Tamam to Turkey, easy shipping—including having your purchases collected from the vendors—is one of the perks. Ms. Burns, who bought ceramics, four suzani bedspreads and six rugs, said Tamam handled shipping for about $400. “Some of my things arrived before I even got home,” she said.
International Harvest / Souvenirs that guests collected on their design-focused journeys abroad
DESIGN JAUNTS ON THE HORIZON
Five 2023 trips abroad devised and helmed by interiors experts imparting their insider info
Ready to shop your way around the world? Here are just some of the available packages that focus on home design. Prices are per person and generally include accommodations, meals and beverages, guided touring, activities and local transportation.
Flea Market Foraging | May 4-10, 2023
The owner of Dressing Rooms Interiors, a vintage-home-furnishings boutique and design studio in Charlotte, N.C., Ariene C. Bethea takes travellers shopping the Paris vintage markets and art galleries and on visits to lesser-known museums such as the Museum Nationale Gustave Moreau. Also on the agenda: a foray to Versailles and its gardens, a tour of Montmartre street art and a tasting at the Museum of Wine. From $3,649, Trips.TrovaTrip.com
Ciao, Italia | May 15-19, 2023 (wait list only)
Chloe Mackintosh, owner of Boxwood Avenue Interiors, a Reno, Nev., studio and shop, leads a 4-night trip in Florence, Italy. Travelers stay at the five-star Il Salviatino, a restored 15th-century villa that mixes Renaissance and contemporary décor. Along with shopping excursions, antiquing and a workshop at a local artisan’s studio, the trip includes wine tasting and cooking lessons. Florence, from $5,500, Learn.BoxwoodAvenue.com
Turkey Club | May 17-26, 2023
Designer Clare Louise Frost, Tulu Textiles owner Elizabeth Hewitt and carpet dealer Hüseyin Kaplan teamed up to create Tamam, located in Manhattan and Istanbul and specialising in antique and vintage Turkish textiles, rugs and ceramics. Travelers tour Istanbul, Konya and Cappadocia, shopping the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar and visiting textiles and antique dealers. Plus: a hot-air-balloon ride and cooking class. Tamam in Turkey, from $3,600, Shop-Tamam.com
English Town and Country | June 11-17, 2023
In London, South African interior designer Serena Crawford guides travellers through Kensington Palace’s Sunken Garden (Diana’s favourite) as well as shops such as heritage brand Fortnum & Mason. In the university town of Oxford, architectural highlights range from medieval to modern, and in the bucolic Cotswolds, guests visit private homes and gardens of renowned interior designers. London & the Cotswolds with Serena Crawford, from $15,350, Indagare.com
Joie de Vivre in France | Sept. 9-16, 2023
Los Angeles-based designer Kathryn M. Ireland takes you on private museum tours, flea market hunts and a trend-spotting tour of design fair Maison et Objet in Paris (ticket not included), followed by leisurely days in the French countryside at her farmhouse outside Toulouse. Paris & La Castellane, from $7,900, Paris hotel not included, KathrynIreland.com
India, Indeed | Dec. 11-18, 2023
San Francisco interior designer Grant K. Gibson shares his passion for India with a guided tour of Jaipur and Taj Mahal. Participants stay in a guesthouse once part of a maharajah’s gardens; enjoy traditional Indian feasts; learn the history of block printing; rendezvous with rescue elephants; and conquer the chaotic bazaar, comprising flower and spice markets and rug and textiles vendors. Travel with Grant from $9,500, GrantKGibson.com
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