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.”
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’
Concern about electric vehicles’ appeal is mounting as some customers show a reluctance to switch
Auto dealers across many parts of the country say electric vehicles are becoming too hard a sell for buyers worried about the range, reliability and price of these models.
When Paul LaRochelle heard Ford Motor was coming out with an electric pickup truck, the dealer was excited about the prospects for his business.
“We thought we could build a million of them and sell them,” said LaRochelle, a vice president at Sheehy Auto Stores, which sells vehicles from a dozen brands in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.
The reality has been less positive. On Sheehy’s car lots, LaRochelle says there is a six- to 12-month supply of EVs, compared with a month of gasoline-powered vehicles.
With automakers set to release a barrage of new electric models in the coming years, concerns are mounting among auto retailers about whether the technology will have broader appeal given that many customers are still reluctant to make the switch.
Battery-powered models have been piling up on car lots, dealers say, as EV sales growth has slowed in the U.S. this year. Car companies have been offering a combination of discounts and lower interest-rate deals in an effort to juice demand. But it hasn’t been enough, because buyer reticence extends beyond the price tag, dealers say.
“I’m not hearing the consumer confidence in the technology,” said Mary Rice, dealer principal at Toyota of Greensboro in North Carolina. “People aren’t beating down the door to buy these things, and they all have a different excuse why they aren’t buying one.”
Customers cite concerns about vehicles burning through a battery charge faster in cold weather or not being able to travel as far as they expected on a single charge, dealers say. Potential buyers also worry that chargers aren’t as readily accessible as gas stations or might be broken.
Franchise dealerships fear that the push to roll out new models will inundate them with hard-to-sell vehicles. Research firm S&P Global Mobility said there are 56 EV models for sale in the U.S. this year, and the number is expected to nearly double to 100 next year.
“I start to think, you know maybe we should just all pump the brakes a little bit,” Rice said.
A group of dealers expressed their concerns about the government’s role in pushing electric vehicles in a letter last month to President Biden.
A Toyota Motor spokesman said the majority of dealers have become “increasingly more confident in their ability to sell Toyota EV products.”
At Ford, the company’s electric-vehicle sales are rising, including for its F-150 Lightning pickup, but demand isn’t evenly spread across the country, according to a spokesman.
Dealers say that after selling an EV, they sometimes hear complaints about charging and the vehicles not always meeting their advertised range. In some cases, customers seek to return them to the dealer shortly after buying them.
“We have a steady number of clients that have attempted to or flat out returned their car,” said Sheehy’s LaRochelle.
While EVs remain a small but rapidly expanding part of the new-car market, the pace of growth has slowed this year. Electric-vehicle sales increased 48% in the first 11 months, compared with a 69% jump during the same period in 2022, according to Motor Intelligence. Sales remain concentrated in a few states, with California accounting for the largest chunk, S&P Global Mobility data found.
The cooling growth has raised broader questions in the industry about whether car companies face a temporary hurdle or a longer-term demand challenge. Automakers have invested billions of dollars to bring more EV models to the market, and many analysts and car executives say they remain optimistic that sales will continue to expand.
“Although the rate of growth has slowed recently, EV demand is clearly moving in the right direction,” said General Motors Chief Executive Mary Barra on a recent conference call with analysts. A combination of more affordable model options and better charging infrastructure would help encourage more people to buy electric vehicles, she said.
There are also varying views within the dealer community about how quickly buyers will adopt the technology.In hot spots for electric-vehicle demand, such as Los Angeles, dealers say their battery-powered models are some of their top sellers. Those popular EV markets also tend to have more mature public charging networks.
Selling an electric car or truck outside of those demand centres is proving more difficult.
Longtime EV owner Carmella Roehrig thought she was ready to go full-electric and sold her backup gasoline vehicle. But after the 62-year-old North Carolina resident found herself stranded last year in a rural area of South Carolina, she changed her mind. Roehrig’s Tesla Model S got a flat tire, but none of the stores in the area carried tires for a Tesla. She ended up paying a worker at a nearby shop to drive her home.
Roehrig still has her Tesla but bought a pickup truck for long road trips.
Tesla didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“I have these conversations with people who say we’ll all be in EVs in 15 years. I say: ‘I’m not so sure. I’ve tried to do it,’” Roehrig said. “I think you need a gas backup.”
Customers who want to ditch their gas vehicle for environmental reasons are sometimes hesitant, said Mickey Anderson, president of Baxter Auto Group, which owns dealerships in Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado.
“We’re in the Colorado Springs market. If this is your sole mode of transportation, and you’re in a market in extremes of elevation and temperature, the actual range is very limited,” Anderson said. “It makes it extremely impractical.”
Dealers representing around 4,000 stores across the U.S. signed the letter in November addressed to Biden, saying the administration’s proposed auto-emissions regulations designed to promote electric-vehicle sales are unrealistic. The signatories ranged from stores owned by family businesses to publicly held giants such as AutoNation and Lithia Motors.
“Some customers are in the market for electric vehicles, and we are thrilled to sell them. But the majority of customers are simply not ready to make the change,” the letter said.
Some carmakers are pushing back EV-rollout plans. GM said in mid-October that it would delay the opening of an electric pickup plant by a year to late 2025. In response to weaker-than-expected consumer demand, Ford said in late October that it would defer $12 billion of planned spending on electric-vehicle investment.
Since September, dealers on average took more than two months to sell an EV, compared with 40 days for all vehicles, according to car-shopping website Edmunds.
While discounts have helped boost sales of some electric vehicles, they also have led to repercussions for some current owners because it reduces the value of their vehicles, dealers say.
“Most people don’t have the confidence to buy an EV and know what it will be worth in 10-15 years,” said Rice from the Toyota dealership.
It may take some time for the industry to adjust because it is still in an early stage of switching to electric vehicles, Sheehy’s LaRochelle said.
“We’re asking for this market to grow organically,” he said.
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’