MILAN — “I would say that the main surprise in 2021 post-COVID-19 has been the incredible turnaround in the American market, which is probably the one that has grown the most,” said Jean-Christophe Babin, chief executive officer of Bulgari.
The U.S. market offers even more untapped potential for the Rome-based jewelry brand, believes Babin — hence the company’s recent investments and additional ones earmarked for the near future in the region.
The executive underscored that “20 percent of luxury goods are purchased in America, it’s a highly strategic and dynamic market,” boosted by a growing demographic, compared to Europe, for example, and “there’s a lot of wealth, so all this puts America at the same level as China in the short and long term in the perspective of luxury goods.”
Babin said Bulgari “invested heavily” in the past four or five years in the U.S., as the Rome-based company “started much smaller” than its direct competitors in jewelry. The belief in the market will be sustained by investing in “competitive resources, on relevant products, communication and events. It’s not only about funding, it’s also important to be consistent and always to reach for excellence,” he underscored.
Babin noted that all the brands under the umbrella of parent-company LVMH Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy are performing well in the U.S.
“America is showing it is a driver in luxury in 2021,” the CEO said. “There is a strong consumer confidence, which explains why American consumers are so keen to buy into luxury experiences and goods.”
Bulgari has 23 stores in North America, of which 19 are in the U.S, including its e-commerce, and four in Canada, including its online platform.
Openings are expected at Hudson Yards in Manhattan next year and in Las Vegas at the Wynn, but exact opening dates are not confirmed.
“Hudson Yards will be complementary to our flagship on Fifth Avenue and our store in Manhasset. We believe a lot in this new district and we think we should have a third location in the city. In the U.K. we have four stores in London, we have six in Paris, it’s quite normal to have three in New York,” he contended, adding that the U.S. is one of the few countries where Bulgari is planning to increase the number of stores.
“We are still below direct competitors such as Cartier and Tiffany and there is still room in the U.S. to increase our footprint. In the years to come, we will open five, six more and gradually increase our perimeter to 25 or 26 stores in three to four years.”
America is also the strongest country for Bulgari’s e-commerce, which “represents the second store in the region in terms of sales, after Fifth Avenue, and it’s growing faster than brick-and- mortar, also post COVID-19,” he explained.
Bulgari is still developing the new stores according to architect Peter Marino’s blueprint, but Babin said “the store concept is evolving. We try to make it more luminous, a bit lighter when it comes to the magnificence of the materials, but it has to be very Roman, to stand the test of the young generations. Our clientele is getting younger, so we are adding small twists, modernizing the concept each time we have the opportunity to open a new store, but its essence remains Roman.”
Babin said the company has been slashing wholesale accounts in the U.S. that distributed watches and jewelry. “In most cases jewelry will exit or is exiting by the end of next year from these wholesale accounts and we’ll be left in the U.S. with only five to six business partners carrying watches and jewelry,” he said.
The goal is to better represent the brand and offer an experience, “which is necessary in terms of a narrative and storytelling” he explained.
This is the way the company operates in other regions, such as the Middle East, Asia and Russia, and “the same approach will be applied to the U.S. where wholesale was something that helped globalize the brand in the ‘70s. Wholesale will be restricted to very, very few partners.”
Watch dealers used to carry jewelry, but this will also change, as Babin believes “jewelry needs its own specific environment and we want watch retailers to obsessively focus on our watches. We have demonstrated over the past years that we are not only a jeweler but also a very competitive and interesting watch maker,” citing the Octo or Serpenti watches as examples, blending Italian design and Swiss engineering.
Worldwide, Bulgari sells “far more” jewelry than anything else and “in America it’s exactly the same, close to 80 percent is jewelry, with an important percentage of high jewelry in the U.S.” In fact, in November, Bulgari brought its Magnifica high jewelry collection to Miami.
Babin also stressed that “unisex jewelry is increasingly an important segment in America with the younger and more fluid generations, who mix and match more.”
Bulgari is extending its lifestyle component in the U.S., where it will open hotels in Miami Beach in 2024 and in Los Angeles in 2025.
“Both are very consistent with the ultra-luxury boutique concept of Bulgari hotels, counting 60 to 90 rooms, mostly suites. In Los Angeles, the project will essentially consist of private villas, while in Miami we are restructuring an Art Deco building.”
These will “further enhance and elevate our brand image in the U.S. and attract ultra-premium wealthy customers. We are leaders in the cities where we operate, and these are pretty competitive locations, but we believe we can make it in the U.S. This further demonstrates our commitment to become a major luxury experience, with high desirability, from jewelry and watches to hospitality,” said Babin.
He also noted that hospitality has a strategic role, “attracting clients that can move to high jewelry and watches.”
Bulgari is applying the selective distribution strategy to its fragrance division as well, which was, Babin believes, “way over-distributed.” The goal is to “raise Bulgari as the most desirable luxury brand in the U.S., which seems ambitious but it’s important. We want the experience be superlative, regardless of the category and we want the level of quality and visibility to be consistent with jewelry. It’s an extreme sacrifice, but we have to do it.”
Bulgari has cut by 90 percent its fragrance points of sale, from the 4,000 that existed in 2017. The perfumes distribution network comprised 430 doors in 2021 and is expected to count 300 doors in 2022.
“We want to stay on only in the very best stores. We need to be consistent. Being the offspring of jewelry, the fragrance experience has to be superlative.”
Bulgari will remain in only a few doors at Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and some Macy’s and Dillard’s, “but never in all doors,” Babin said.
The company is now “expressing the full potential” of the recently launched “Allegra” fragrance and, “believe it or not, we have been gaining market share through streamlining, managing to get better space, exposure and visibility, and better support from our partners,” concluded Babin.