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Shoppers across Europe are loosening their purse strings for the Christmas season, according to retailers, who are upbeat about sales so far.

This story first appeared in the December 16, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

European economies continue to struggle — especially in such key markets as the U.K. and Germany — resulting in trends around the Continent that are similar: While shoppers are more than happy to spend, many are trading down, sticking to their budgets and investing in classic, enduring pieces rather than trendy ones. There’s some discounting going on, although not as rampant as in the U.S., and stores such as Printemps in Paris, Selfridges in London and Düsseldorf’s Eickhoff Königsallee are entertaining shoppers with impromptu pantomime performances, Russian dancers, and tempting them with cinnamon cookies and Champagne.

“After a morose 12 months, we are seeing people wanting to treat themselves and others,” said Tancrède de Lalun, general merchandise manager of women’s apparel for Printemps. “Things are very positive, the store is festive and people are shopping.”

Here, a breakdown of the European holiday retail scene in some of the major countries:

U.K.

At Selfridges, marketing director Sally Scott said sales at the stores so far are outperforming the figures for 2008 and 2007. “And both those years were record-breaking years for us,” she said. “We are on course to achieve one of our best-ever Christmas seasons.” Scott said accessories collections were selling well, while traditional gifts of couture fragrances and scented candles were still among the best-selling items.

“Designer handbags and jewelry are two key areas for us. Shoes and fashion are also performing very robustly. What we’ve seen this season, in particular, is the great return to dressing up. Our customers are purchasing a lot of statement fashion, dresses and outfits to wear to go out and impress or simply feel glamorous,” she said.

“Everyone seems to have a [clear] idea of what they’re looking for,” said Erin Mullaney, Browns’ buying director. “They have shopping lists and a budget, but they do want to spend as they’ve restricted their spending all year.” Mullaney noted while many shoppers are splashing out on items such as coats, shoes and handbags for themselves, which they may have resisted buying earlier in the year, they’re spending smaller amounts on friends and family.

The ideal price point for giftable items is about 250 pounds, or $408, or less, she said, adding Lanvin limited edition figurines and snow globes are the store’s best-selling gift items. Soft accessories, such as scarves, hats and gloves, are also selling well. New season pieces, including RM by Roland Mouret and Preen dresses, as well as Christian Louboutin wedges, have been performing very well. Promotional activity has also helped boost sales, Mullaney said.

The store offered discounts to its VIP customers earlier this month and kicked off its sale preview on Dec. 11. “We have to work harder to get customers to spend money, but with the right product at the right price, people are still opening their wallets,” said Mullaney. “I’m optimistic about next year.”

Bridget Cosgrave, fashion and buying director at British multibrand chain Matches, is also upbeat about the season. “The future looks bright at the moment,” she said. “I was in our Wimbledon store recently, and I felt people were shopping with optimism. There was some stealth shopping going on, but people were back shopping with confidence.”

Cosgrave noted a strong buzz around spring deliveries, particularly pieces by Alexander McQueen and Erdem. Dresses priced at about 800 pounds, or $1,304, are also putting in a strong performance, she said, and a Marc Jacobs leather biker jacket retailing at 1,800 pounds, or $2,935, has sold out. Cashmere items, scarves, knitwear and fine and costume jewelry are doing well at the stores, as are vintage Chanel handbags.

She noted a dearth of eveningwear pieces in the 600 pound to 700 pound, or $978 to $1,141, price bracket. “I think in general designers held back on eveningwear this year based on last year,” Cosgrave said. “People are looking to dress up.” Cosgrave noted since promotional activity is rife, Matches has offered targeted discounts to its top spending customers.

Ed Burstell, buying director at London’s Liberty, was bullish about the department store’s performance. “As a store, we are into a double-digit increase for the full year,” he said, attributing the spike to a buying strategy focused on new, exclusive and unusual products combined with brands to which customers are already loyal.

“It’s retail nirvana,” he said.

Burstell said ready-to-wear sales have been “solid,” adding care had been taken to ensure a selection of pieces at accessible price points. He noted some categories, such as handbags and lingerie, are moving at a slower pace than others. Events staged to encourage people to shop, including Fashion’s Night Out and the temporary transformation of London’s Oxford Street and Regent Street into a pedestrian zone on Dec. 5, have had a positive impact on business, Burstell said. “Fashion’s Night Out let people know it was OK to shop,” he said.

At Harrods, a spokeswoman said best-selling brands include Chanel, MAC, Bobbi Brown and Laura Mercier in the beauty category. In women’s wear, the store reported strong sales in mini- and one-shoulder dresses and strapless gowns, in addition to statement necklaces.

Harvey Nichols is reporting strong sales across all stores in the run-up to Christmas, although a spokeswoman said customers are looking for value. “People are still spending, but there has been a shift as to what they are spending on. The customer is very conscious over how to get the most value for their money and focusing more on quality rather than quantity, classic rather than seasonal trend,” she added.

Harvey Nichols’ best-performing categories include beauty and accessories, with fragrance sales contributing to 46 percent of the entire beauty category. Earlier this month, the store held late night shopping evenings with the Sunday Times’ Style magazine for its card holders, which saw profits increase by 49 percent across all of its stores.

“There has not been any reason for us to discount outside of the seasonal sale,” said the spokeswoman.

ITALY

Italian retailers are reporting brisk sales, helped by the long weekend that ended on Dec. 8. Compared with last year, retailers noted a more upbeat attitude.

“The mood is positive overall, and sales for the Christmas season are going well,” said Monica Ferreri, head of communication at the Italian department store La Rinascente. “The weekend of Sant’Ambrogio, traditionally very important for us, showed an increase of 5 percent over 2008, and we think that our sales for this Christmas will exceed those of 2008.”

She said products in the store’s new Design Supermarket are among the bestsellers, due to the fact that there are unusual gift items with prices that range from 10 euros to 3,000 euros, or about $15 to $4,500. “The gourmet and food categories are moving well, as well as the fragrance department, as fragrances are a typical Christmas gift,” she said, adding clients are paying more attention to how they spend. “If a product is of high quality, they are more willing to spend. That’s why the theme this season is Made in Italy, in order to assure our customers of the quality and provenance of our products.”

Franz Kraler, the specialty retailer in Dobbiaco, Italy, near the Austrian Alps, reported positive feedback despite the fact the store is offering no special holiday promotions or sales. “The long weekend of Dec. 8 went very well, and it gives us the sense that it’s going to be a very positive Christmas,” said store owner Daniela Kraler. “There’s great enthusiasm.”

At Kraler, popular items include pieces from the cruise-resort and spring pre-collections, feminine dresses both classic and more fashion-forward from designers including Dior and Balenciaga, bejeweled footwear and classic Italian brands like Prada, Gucci and Fendi. As for accessories, the Peekaboo bag by Fendi and Yves Saint Laurent’s Roady bag are selling well, while furs paired with lighter-weight spring dresses are also proving a hit.

In Milan, Antonia, a top multibrand store, had a similar story to tell. “We never have promotions or give major discounts, but the mood is definitely positive,” said store owner Antonia Giacinti. “Over the holiday weekend we sold well, even though our major clientele goes away for the weekend.”

Both retailers said their clients are making major purchases, such as coats and furs, rather than more frivolous ones, looking for quality and assurance of origin above all. Giacinti said Christian Louboutin shoes and Fendi’s Peekaboo bag, embellished evening dresses and furs of all styles were selling well.

FRANCE

In Paris, which remains the world’s number-one tourist destination despite the strength of the euro, Christmas shoppers have been spending at top stores such as Printemps, with its newly renovated historical facade and in-store decorations with a Le Noel Russe theme.

The store tapped Dior and Chanel to decorate its windows: There is a Princess Nadejda by Chanel vitrine with marionettes popping out of Matriochka dolls. Underscoring the Slavic theme, Printemps also boasts a Kremlin-like facade, while on Saturdays until Christmas, Russian dancers perform inside the store.

“We have definitely invested more than in past seasons. We want to treat our customers very well,” de Lalun said, adding accessories were “selling very well,” as were colorful and festive pieces such as bright watches to help “de-dramatize” the mood.

Sarah Lerfel, the creative director and buyer at Colette, agreed. “People are being careful, but they’re not restricting themselves. We’ve seen sales increase in the month of November.”

Lerfel said Colette’s Internet sales have seen a “big peak” in the buildup to the holidays.

Meanwhile, in-store Christmas treats garnering interest from shoppers include Swarovski limited edition pieces and holiday trinkets like giant-size snow globes and lamps from Martin Margiela’s line 13. “We are seeing even the most expensive pieces sell,” Lerfel said.

Statisticians at Paris-based fashion institute IFM said they were still gathering numbers for November. “It is too early to predict how the season will pan out. If consumers were holding out to shop on the first Saturday of December, then business could be made up,” commented Charles Tillard-Tete, head of statistics at IFM. Visibility is still foggy, he said.

SPAIN

According to Spanish retailers, an increasingly more resilient consumer, cautious but still spending, and practical buying patterns are energizing the holiday season here. Stores are pulling out the stops to accommodate shoppers, including Sunday openings, price breaks, one-day sales and special in-store promotions.

Because of the ongoing economic crisis in Spain, price is definitely an issue, retailers said. “Customers are opting for less expensive merchandise, downsizing purchases from a cashmere to wool sweater or a scarf to a tie, for example, and consumers are migrating more toward the outlets,” said Andrea Corcuera, senior manager of Las Rozas, a discount shopping mall with more than 100 venues. “For that reason, we’re adding pop-up stores like Bulgari and Kenzo to target higher-end customers and stimulate foot traffic.”

Consumer confidence is definitely up, retailers believe, but not to the same level as three years ago. “People feel they have to buy at this time of year,” suggested a spokeswoman for Agatha Ruiz de la Prada, whose product mix, including women’s, men’s, children’s wear and back-to-school items is sourced from roughly 50 licenses. With two freestanding stores in Madrid and Barcelona, the brand is not adjusting price points down for the holidays and there are no special promotions, “because so far we’ve moving enough merchandise,” she said. Ruiz de la Prada’s bestsellers are items with no size restrictions, such as handbags, men’s ties and costume jewelry, and umbrellas — priced from $22 to $32 with the Madrid-based designer’s signature galactic prints — have “completely” sold out.

“Sales have picked up because of the long weekend traffic — there was a holiday here from Dec. 4 to 8 — mainly tourists and out-of-towners,” added Linda Heras, director of international development for Roberto Verino, an upscale women’s and men’s label. “Shoppers are making up for a slow period. They’re looking to pull out of the melancholy caused by the crisis. Stores seem busier and there are lots of luxury brand shopping bags in the street, and that’s always a good sign — but it’s definitely not business as usual,” Heras cautioned. “We have 30 percent discounts on slow-moving merchandise such as a jacquard jacket and some women’s separates.”

Best pre-Christmas sellers are handbags and cocktail dresses “and small bags will probably pick up as gifts,” she said.

GERMANY

At Eickhoff Königsallee, one of Düsseldorf’s leading luxury fashion boutiques, buying manager Stefan Asbrand-Eickhoff said Christmas sales “are well on track and a good second half is expected. We’re currently selling a lot of modern dresses from designers like Marc Jacobs, Stella McCartney and Balenciaga. High heels from Dior, Miu Miu and Gucci are also bestsellers, as are knits, especially Malo, Iris von Arnim and Brunello Cucinelli.” He added Bottega Veneta accessories and Zagliani’s python bags are going well.

“Our customer has definitely become more critical, especially in terms of higher prices. For example, she wouldn’t necessarily spend 1,000 euros [$1,400] on a pair of high heels just because those have a red sole. The product needs to be authentic, too, which is why fitted dresses by Roland Mouret and Dolce & Gabbana are good sellers,” he said.

Along with Champagne service, cinnamon cookies and a piano player, the store has invited special guests. So far, designer Brunello Cucinelli has greeted shoppers and Oscar-winning actor Sebastian Koch has signed DVDs of his “Sea Wolf” film. “For every purchase of a Brunello Cucinelli piece on the first Saturday two weeks ago, customers received a leather bracelet. This upcoming weekend, specially designed T-shirts will be given away with any purchase of 300 euros [$480] or more. “With these promotions,” Asbrand-Eickhoff said, “we have direct sales contact.”

At Jades, Düsseldorf’s premier retailer for designer jeans and contemporary fashion, buyer Anissa Kube said the holiday business is as good as in previous years. “So far, we got the impression that our customers aren’t any more careful or planning to save. The opposite is actually the case. Our bestsellers during the Christmas season remain jeans and parkas as well as handbags and accessories,” she reported. “We are also seeing a strong increase of party dresses and gowns, which should grow further in the next few weeks.”

Kube said consumer confidence at Jades is as high as in previous holiday seasons. “There is a lot happening right now, both in terms of new labels, but also in regard to our online business. And since we’re planning lots of events for Jades’ 10th anniversary next year, we’re also confident for a good shopping season to come in 2010.”

At KaDeWe, Berlin’s leading department store and the flagship of the Karstadt Premium group, marketing director Petra Fladenhofer described the store’s Christmas business as “good. At the moment, fashion is the best-selling category, because the weather is finally shifting [into cold].

“Classic gift items like cashmere pullovers are doing well, and we’ve also noticed that the whole cocktail and party segment is getting younger. It’s a growing classification all over Germany, and we’re now selling dresses to younger women as well as little sequin tops to wear for evening or pair with jeans.”

Fladenhofer said customers are indeed spending, but noted a growing hesitation in the highest price segments. “When it comes to high-ticket items like expensive watches, consumers are now really thinking it over before making a purchase. Before, they’d come in once and buy, but now they keep looking and coming back.”

Nonetheless, KaDeWe’s luxury boulevard of shop-in-shops from Vuitton, Gucci, Chanel and the like is still “doing very well. Accessories are functioning as before, though in the fashion end, there is a stronger sensitivity to price.”

 

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