NEW YORK — High-end retailers say consumers aren’t feeling any less loving toward French luxury products these days, despite France’s political position against a war in Iraq and toward a more peaceful approach to disarmament.
This story first appeared in the February 14, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Luxury retailers say their customers are not going to let France’s political position change their minds about buying that Louis Vuitton bag or Hermès tie.
Asked if he is seeing any slowdown in demand for French products, Michael Gould, chairman and chief executive of Bloomingdale’s, replied, “I don’t see it,” adding that the business with such top brands as Chanel and Louis Vuitton has been very good.
A spokesman for Saks Fifth Avenue said the retailer hasn’t seen any drop-off at all in French products.
“We haven’t been seeing much of a backlash from that,” agreed a spokeswoman for Barneys New York. “I think it’s a little bit too soon to recognize whether anything will come from that.”
French-based firms don’t foresee a boycott of French products either. “It seems to me a boycott would be rather unjustified because we love the Americans,” said Christian Courtin, president and chief executive officer of Groupe Clarins. “It’s not because our governments have different opinions that it has to be translated into commercial action. It is not the war against Iraq that makes us afraid,” he said. “On the contrary, it is the war itself.”
Andrew Gowan, equities analyst at Lehman Bros. in London, said an American consumer backlash against French products would have a marginal effect on the luxury sector.
“Yes, it’s a risk,” he said. “But the question is does the U.S. matter that much? Probably less than you think. Do American customers bred and born in Oklahoma matter?”
Gowan said the U.S. accounts for about one-fifth of sales in the sector. “But if you strip out tourists from that it’s probably about 10 to 15 percent,” he said, adding fashionable, politically savvy customers could decide to boycott French-made products. “It would be like women not wearing fur because fur isn’t cool anymore.” Gowan said the only potentially damaging scenario would be if President Bush decided to ban the importation of French products, such as wine. “That would be harmful for LVMH,” he said.
However, some observers believe there could be growing American resistance to buying French consumable goods, such as wines, or dining in French restaurants. A few of New York’s French restaurants reported a slowdown in business this week — and even some antagonism from high-end customers who wondered why they should eat French food. However, most restaurants noted they were fully booked for today, Valentine’s Day, since love conquers all.
Charles Masson, manager of La Grenouille, a top French restaurant here, said business was slow for a few days earlier in the week. “There are some people who read some articles that weren’t flattering earlier in the week that will remain nameless that seemed to have an adverse effect. People were talking about it. It was just for a few days, and we haven’t felt anything beyond that. We’re booked up for the weekend. “
As for bookings next week, Masson said, “What’s happening right now is there’s so much instability that it’s easy to get caught up in blaming entire nations. It’s such a muddled situation now, it’s impossible to predict what will happen.”
Michel Jean, owner of Provence, a restaurant on McDougal Street here, said business has been slow even before this happened. “I don’t see any attitude from our customers. Maybe some people refrain to come to my place, but I think it’s a lot of because of a stupid writer in the New York Post.”
He was referring to a front page story Monday written by Steve Dunleavy, with the headline, “They Died for France, But France Has Forgotten.” The article was accompanied by a photo of crosses on the graves of those Americans who died in World War II.
Jean said he expects to be busy today, “and the weekend isn’t too bad. If they can’t come on Valentine’s Day, they’ll come Saturday. I don’t think people should have that kind of attitude. It’s getting out of hand.”
In France, meanwhile, iconic American brands, such as Levi’s and Nike, said there has been no backlash against their products thus far. “We’ve seen absolutely no anti-Americanism against our products,” said a spokesman for Levi’s in Europe. “To be honest, it hasn’t even occurred to us to be concerned. We have no evidence that it could happen.”
A spokesman for Nike in France echoed his sentiments. “For the moment, we haven’t seen anything of the kind. But you never know what could happen. It’s still too early to tell.”