PARIS — To put it in a nutshell: “Luxury is not doing well,” says HSBC analyst Erwan Rambourg. And a lot if it has to do with China, he adds.
“Forget the anticorruption laws. They are ancient history. Their impact was felt between 2013 and 2014, and perhaps up to mid-2015, but they have been well absorbed by the market. For the past 12 months, the reasons for the sluggish luxury sales have been psychological. It’s what the English refer to as the feel-good factor. If I feel good, I buy,” the Hong Kong-based researcher said during a meeting with journalists on Wednesday at the bank’s headquarters on Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris.
Unfortunately, the Chinese, which account for 40 percent of the luxury brands’ customer base, have been feeling the blues.
“Let’s put it this way: Although China is coming back, the Chinese are not,” Rambourg argued.
Chinese travelers have been discouraged by a series of geopolitical factors, including volatility on the stock markets, terrorist attacks in Paris and Belgium, talks of Brexit, and elections in the U.S., Taiwan and even Austria, where a right-wing candidate came within a hair’s breadth of victory, he noted, adding: “The Chinese are staying at home, also helped by lower importation taxes and the development of a local duty-free industry,” which has buoyed local spending but in turn hurts regions like France, were three-quarters of sales are achieved through foreign money. “In Paris that number stands at 75 percent to 80 percent of sales,” he said.
The analyst nonetheless projected that it would be China — alongside the U.S., which is slowly waking up — which will drive luxury consumption in the next five to 10 years. “Even if current luxury consumption is slow at the moment, we are a lot more optimistic about U.S. luxury consumption than the French or Italian,” he said, noting how “for a long time a guilt factor has stuck with the American consumer — perhaps because of its predominantly protestant culture, then linked to 9/11 and the collapse of the Lehman Brothers. It was just not considered appropriate to flash a new Rolex when the neighbor has lost everything. Now, little by little, we see the resurgence of a new, more confident generation, and of minorities, most notably of Hispanic and Asian origin, which accept to pay the price of luxury.”
Viewing the slowdown and the changing demographics, fellow analyst Antoine Belge said luxury labels would be well advised to hold their horses when it comes to new store openings and to focus on what he dubbed “retail excellence” instead. “This is really the new buzzword. To give you an example, we know there are fierce battles going on for the best salespeople, who truly have a sense of what the clientele wants, as we begin to understand that 10 percent of the sales personnel can generate 40 percent of business.”
Both Belge and Rambourg singled out LVMH for its ability to adapt to the widening spectrum of consumers.
“Four years ago, Louis Vuitton had a real problem of credibility — it was considered as a brand for secretaries, could see it everywhere, had it up to here. But the group initiated a hyper-segmentation of its product and retail spaces. When you enter a store today there is a VIP section which serves bespoke alongside your favorite bubbly — away from the masses, while on the other extreme, you will find a special cashier for the middle class, where a 23-year will spend three minutes buying an item from his wish list with the money from his first job, and he will also be happy. What Vuitton managed to do is to stay relevant at all price levels and with all customer groups without alienating one or the other.”
Among other key factors, the analyst named creativity, which he identified as Chanel’s forte, a brand that according to him was doing “much better than everybody else,” as well as the ability to create “the illusion of rarity,” as is the case with Hermès. “When you have been on the waiting list for four years to acquire a Birkin bag and you finally get the call that the bag is ready, you will buy it,” he argued.
Vice versa, when Cartier started selling watches with complications, the novel product and price proposition did not jibe well with its customers, Rambourg said. “The client expects a Cartier watch to be pretty not to tell the time for 30,000 euros. You have to adapt to the person you are selling to,” stressed the analyst, arguing that luxury in essence is useless. “Five years ago Prada, Gucci and Louis Vuitton thought their biggest competitors were Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton. While in reality it’s plastic surgery and Apple. There are alternatives. A client today will need to decide between spending 2,000 euros on a Louis Vuitton bag or on fixing her eyelids. The key word is targeted communication.”
In general, he lamented, chief executives do not spend enough time on the ground hearing about what the customer wants, which also includes e-commerce. “The fact that I can order a book on Amazon and have it delivered in 24 hours or a pair of Nike with my initials on them, but that it doesn’t work the same with a luxury handbag, is shocking to me,” he said.