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Men's taste for luxury raises hopes in US
Aggregated Source: Shanghai Daily: Business

MOST men might balk at spending US$600 on a pair of Dior sneakers but for US shoppers like Ephraim, an upbeat 30-year-old, such indulgences are becoming increasingly commonplace.

Ephraim is the kind of man who gives luxury goods makers high hopes that the US market can fuel future growth, as China runs out of steam and demand in Europe sags.

"There is a cultural shift," Ephraim says while browsing at Saks Inc's New York City flagship. "Men are becoming more fashion forward."

The growing appeal of luxury goods to men and increased confidence among affluent spenders as the US economy and asset prices recover have boosted sales and encouraged luxury brands to step up their investments.

More foreign shoppers are also thronging stores as the US government eases visa restrictions to attract more tourists.

Luxury spending in the United States collapsed after the 2008 financial crisis but roared back to pre-crisis levels by 2012. Last year, luxury groups LVMH and PPR saw higher growth rates in the US than in China for the first time in years.

Sales in the Americas are expected to grow 5-7 percent this year, compared to 6-8 percent in China's mainland and 0-2 percent in Europe, according to consultancy Bain & Co.

Evidence is already showing. Ralph Lauren last week forecast US sales growth of 4-7 percent while Saks reported quarterly sales up 5.9 percent, almost double what analysts had forecast.

"There is renewed confidence, a genuine rebound in fashion and luxury consumption," said Sidney Toledano, head of French fashion house Christian Dior, part of LVMH.

Major brands such as Prada, Hermes, Burberry and Hugo Boss are opening shops or expanding existing ones in the US, and are stepping up their advertising spend.

Rodeo Drive flagship

In July, Alexander McQueen will open a store on New York's Madison Avenue. Next year, Burberry plans to launch a new flagship on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

LVMH and PPR are also expanding in the US while putting the brakes on China, which had been the major driver for luxury sales until last year.

"I think the US holds a lot more potential than people believe while the focus has very much been on the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries," said Robert Chavez, head of US operations at Hermes.

The French group, which opened its only shop dedicated to men on Madison Avenue in 2010, now makes about 15 percent of its sales in the US, up from 10 percent five years ago.

Sales in China account for 20 percent.

"We have noticed a rise in men's purchases, particularly in the last two years," said Chavez. Ties, shoes and US$8,000 custom-made three-piece cashmere suits are all doing equally well.

In the 212 billion euro (US$274 billion) luxury as a whole, the US outguns China, even before the new growth spurt.

Bain & Co values the US market at 59 billion euros, Europe at 74.2 billion and China around 22 billion.

PPR boss Francois-Henri Pinault reckons that rising numbers of tourists to the US will enable it to narrow the gap with Europe, where visitors account for about half of luxury sales. That contrasts with 15-20 percent in the US.

"We will never have as many tourists as in Europe but I think that ratio could reach 30 percent over the next few years," said Milton Predaza, chief executive of Luxury Institute, a US consultancy.

In 2010, 6 million tourists from Brazil, India and China flew to Western Europe compared to 2.6 million to the US.

Travel agents say US visa approvals require more proof of employment history and finances than for France or Italy.

Brazilian tourists

The US would earn US$20 billion more from luxury sales if it had as many tourists from emerging markets as Europe, New York-based brokerage International Strategy & Investment Group (ISI) estimates.

The US State Department says it has cut the wait for a visa-related interview in Brazil, where most US luxury shopping tourists come from, to two days. Clerks at Saks said they had noticed an increase in Brazilian tourists.

The State Department also plans to waive interviews for some visa applicants and is expanding or building new consulates in China and Brazil.

Tourism from China is expected to more than triple to 3.9 million people by 2017 from 2011. Tourism from Brazil is forecast to rise 83 percent to 2.8 million, according to the US Department of Commerce.

"We have not had a major breakthrough yet. However, it is moving in the right direction," said Omar Saad, senior managing director and head of the luxury team at ISI.

The appeal of America to Brazilians is twofold - it is closer than Europe and prices are much lower than at home. A Burberry man's coat costs US$3,100 in Sao Paulo against US$995 at the New York flagship on 57th street.

Pam Danziger, president of marketing consulting firm Unity Marketing and author of studies on the US luxury industry, believes growth is also being driven by what she calls HENRYs - "high earning, not rich yet" Americans making US$100,000-US$249,000 a year. She estimates about 24.2 million households are HENRYs.

To capture those buyers, brands are now expanding beyond New York, which accounts for a third of US luxury sales, and the next two main cities of Los Angeles and Miami.

Last month, Hermes opened in Greenwich, Connecticut - an area popular with financial professionals and their families - and plans to expand in cities like LA, Miami, Houston, Dallas and Boston over the next two years.

PPR's brands, which include Balenciaga, Gucci and Stella McCartney, are looking at Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, Orlando and Philadelphia.

"The US is an emerging country when it comes to luxury," said Boston Consulting Group senior partner Jean-Marc Bellaiche.

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